Published May 26, 2010
Fire crews investigating a mysterious smell uncovered a severe case of hoarding when they found an elderly couple buried alive under mounds of garbage in their Chicago home, authorities said Tuesday.
Jesse Gaston, 76, and his wife, Thelma, 79, were found Monday night when the fire department team forced in the door of the South Side home and found an overpowering stench, piles of food waste and trash.
"We've called the city so many times, but they'd just get a ticket," neighbor, Andrea Adams, told MyFoxChicago.com. "We called the man 'Fred Sanford' because he was always collecting junk. He's a friendly guy, but he wouldn't let anyone in there — we didn't even know the woman was living there."
Margo Brooks, a spokesperson for Jackson Park Hospital, said the two were admitted and remained listed in critical condition, possibly suffering from malnutrition, according to the report.
Police had initially been called to the apartment building by neighbors who had not seen the couple in some time and wondered about their welfare. Police called in the fire department because of the stench and the team that entered wore hazardous materials suits.
An 83-year-old neighbor, Hattie Fields, said the couple had lived in the building for years.
"I've been here since 1965 and I can't remember if they were here then or not," she said.
She said that she used to see the woman sitting on the front porch as she walked by, but no longer could because the hedges had not been trimmed for years, and had grown level with the second floor of the building, obscuring the view.
Fields added that she was fairly certain no one else lived in the building, although there were unoccupied apartments on the first floor and in the basement. She said signs of neglect were obvious.
"The back yard is also full of debris," she said.
"Essentially, hoarding is a particular manifestation of obsessive compulsive disorder," Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist and Fox News contributor, told FoxNews.com. "People feel compelled to collect and keep seemingly useless things, and would become highly and irrationally anxious if these things were taken from them."
Ablow said the root of this disorder is partly biological and partly due to early life events.
"Particularly those involving sudden changes or catastrophic losses," he said. "Hoarding can also be a kind of psychological defense against bigger threats since hoarders reduce their sense of well-being to whether they can keep the things they have collected."
While this may be an extreme case of hoarding, Ablow was quick to point out that there are millions of people who "cling to collections of things."
"And these material belongings cause them financial harm or interfere with their relationships," he added.
Treatments include anti-anxiety medicines as well as psychotherapy.
"We use these treatments either to find the root causes of hoarding or to support hoarders as they take the necessary steps to conquer their addictions to collecting," Ablow said.
Click here to read more and see a video from MyFoxChicago.com.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.