Claud Wolff steers clear of technology. And pretense.
He’s never used a computer or voicemail, his cell phone is old-style, and nothing brings him more instant gratification than boiling hobo dinners in the 8-by-19-foot trailer he calls home.
Or spending time with his six dogs—five Chihuahuas and a pit bull named Cookie.
He has become part of the Lakeview, Michigan, land where his trailer resides. His jeans are dirty with its soil, his work boots leave clumps of dried mud behind when he walks.
Wolff, 70, lives simply and naturally. He doesn’t shave. Thick reddish-gray facial hair cascades down his neck. There’s no electric razor in these parts. Electronics aren’t his passion. “Junking” is.
“People throw metal and stuff away,” he said. “I take it home and clean it. I just took a load in and got $126 for about 200 pounds’ worth.”
He stores his treasures in two 7-by-14-foot canvas sheds on this rural Mid-Michigan property.
“My refrigerator is out there,” he said. “And my table saw and my wood-splitter. You name it, it’s there.”
Neighbors jokingly call his place “Wolff’s hardware.”
“If people need anything, they come around here before they go to the hardware store,” he said. “Believe it or not, I’ve got over 500 pounds of good nails. If somebody needs something, I ain’t about to charge nothin’. I just give them what they need.”
That’s the way he likes things at his place. Non-pretentious, low-key, slightly reclusive and as far away as possible from the big city life.
His half-dozen dogs all sleep in the same bed with him. They’re his “babies.” The seven of them, they’re a family. They do OK in their tiny trailer home, without help from outsiders.
‘Bump’ in the simple life
Wolff’s simple life rolled along for a good many years, until about three years ago when he began to experience dizzy spells.
“I just learned to live with a lot of junk,” he said. “Dizzy, blurry. Once, I almost passed out. I was coming into the trailer with a young lady and she asked what was wrong.
“I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I didn’t fall all the way down. I got a thing there I can grab.”
Wolff first went to see Debra House, a nurse practitioner at Spectrum Health Kelsey Hospital in Lakeview. Next came a referral to other Spectrum Health specialists, who diagnosed narrowing of the carotid arteries in his neck due to plaque buildup, likely due in part to 60 years of smoking.
Despite Wolff’s backwoodsman style and aversion to technology, his health issue brought him front and center with the Spectrum Health app, a high-tech video-conference service.
“I don’t like traveling clean to Grand Rapids for a consultation and coming all the way back again,” said Wolff, who relies on drivers for his transportation. “This is a lot quicker and a lot closer to me.”
Instead of traveling the big hour to Grand Rapids, which makes him stiff and sore, he travels less than half an hour to the Spectrum Health Greenville office, where he can consult with doctors either in person or via the Spectrum Health app, depending on schedules.
Wolff first met his surgeon, Christopher Chambers, MD, PhD, Spectrum Health section chief of vascular surgery, through a Spectrum Health video visit—Wolff in Greenville, Dr. Chambers in Grand Rapids.
Wolff underwent testing, then spoke to Dr. Chambers via teleconference and discussed his need for carotid endarterectomy, a surgery to clean out his left carotid artery. Wolff’s right carotid artery also showed some blockage.
They met in person for the first time the day of Wolff’s surgery at the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center in Grand Rapids.
“We had successful surgery on the left side but we needed to follow him long-term for the right side,” Dr. Chambers said. “The (Spectrum Health app) screen is fantastic. You get a good interaction—there’s no delays.”
Dr. Chambers said the service is an important tool for many vascular patients.
“Traditionally, when a primary care doctor refers a patient to a vascular surgeon, the patient must make an appointment and make the drive to Grand Rapids to see the specialist,” Dr. Chambers said. “But, through (the Spectrum Health app), they can consult with the specialist the same day.”
Spectrum Health is incorporating the technology into primary care offices. “Vascular on demand” video visits are then scheduled at vascular offices throughout West Michigan.
“We ask, ‘What’s closest to you?'” Dr. Chambers said. “Mr. Wolff chose to drive to Greenville instead of all the way to Grand Rapids.”
Nine specialists in the vascular office share the job of meeting with patients through the Spectrum Health app.
“We decrease the cost of driving to Grand Rapids, taking the day off work and often having a family member take a day off work,” Dr. Chambers said. “We also decrease the anxiety and fear that having to wait for an appointment creates. Once you have the explanation, you can start processing it. If you’re told, ‘You need surgery,’ then you can start wrapping your arms around it.”
Since his surgery last year, Wolff has continued with follow-up visits via the Spectrum Health app.
On a recent late fall day, he had scheduled a virtual video visit at the Greenville office, but it turned out that Stefano Bordoli, MD, could meet in person at the office.
That day, Wolff underwent a neck ultrasound to check the status of his right carotid artery.
He grew anxious as he waited for the doctor to enter the room. He knew the right side may need attention, but he hoped he wouldn’t need surgery, although if he did, he figured it could wait until after his cataract surgery in late December. He can barely see anymore.
Sitting in that office, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he wanted to get home soon. He had a hobo dinner simmering in an 18-quart pot on his stove—ham, steak cut up into pieces, carrots, potatoes, green beans, hot dogs and chicken.
He hoped for comforting news as he anticipated the comfort food that awaited him.
He spoke of his younger days, living on Seward Avenue in Grand Rapids, near the train tracks. It’s there he met the hobos. And fed them.
“They didn’t have nothing to eat and I did,” Wolff said, sitting on the edge of the exam table, swinging his legs, small chunks of tread-shaped clay falling from his boots. “I mean, shoot, I like cooking. I made them hobo dinner like the one I’m making at home right now.”
Wolff said it pained him to watch the hobos cooking food in tin cans.
“They would come in on the boxcars,” he said. “They would open a can, put it over the fire and cook it. I said, ‘What the heck, I can feed them.’ I even let them take baths at my house. They’ve got to get washed up, too, just like me or you or anybody else.”
Wolff then spoke of his Christmas dinner plans: He’ll roast a ham, turkey and have mashed potatoes, homemade gravy, cranberry sauce and apple pie.
All for himself and his six dogs.
“When their bowl is empty, I’ll fill it back up,” he said.
When Dr. Bordoli entered the room, Wolff paused, hoping for good news.
Dr. Bordoli asked him how he’s doing and if he’s been experiencing any weakness or vision trouble. Then came the ultrasound results.
“It looks like your right artery is more narrow than it was last time,” Dr. Bordoli said.
The scan showed greater than 80 percent narrowing of his right carotid, up from 60% on his last scan several months ago.
Dr. Bordoli recommended surgery on the right carotid to lower the risk of stroke.
“It’d likely be me doing it, if that’s OK with you,” the doctor said.
Wolff asked if he could continue with his scheduled cataract surgery first, given he can barely see, but Dr. Bordoli highly recommended they move ahead with the endarterectomy on the right side. The endarterectomy would clean the artery.
Wolff would have to address the cataracts after healing from this surgery.
The news clearly deflated him. His shoulders slumped forward and his eyes fell to the tiled floor.
He took a deep breath, as if inhaling acceptance, resolve, strength and determination, all in the same breath.
“I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “I’ve got to be home for my babies.”