The day before the paperback edition of The Other Dr. Gilmer was to go to press in early January 2022, our legal team received word from Virginia’s secretary of the commonwealth that Gov. Ralph Northam was reconsidering his original rejection of Vince Gilmer’s clemency.
I was on a Zoom meeting when I saw a call that I couldn’t pick up. Then a text came through.
“Take a break! Northam may reverse his decision. We have work to do! Need you to reach out to Broughton [Hospital], have to talk about guardianship!”
I spent the rest of the day in ecstatic tears, calling everyone I knew who was close to Vince, starting with my wife, Deirdre, then the rest of my family and Vince’s mother, Gloria.
I ran down the halls of Cane Creek, screaming to anyone who would listen, “Vince is getting out!”
As I spread the news, I wondered what had happened to change the governor’s mind. Before Christmas, I had shared early versions of this book with Gov. Northam and others in his cabinet. We made calls. We talked to anyone who would listen: parole board members; Dr. Janice Underwood, the secretary of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; and Senator Creigh Deeds. But our hopes had not been high. As Gov. Northam’s days left in office dwindled to hours, we all knew that reversing a clemency ruling would be nothing less than miraculous.
But that’s exactly what happened. Something had clearly changed.
What was the final trigger to shift the governor’s heart? All I could imagine was that finally, the right people had heard Vince’s story. Not only had they decided to listen; they had changed their minds.
They had chosen compassion.
I was tearful as I made calls. We had worked so hard together for nearly 10 years. We had become dear friends and seasoned parents. We had imagined this victory for Vince a thousand times but always remained fearful it would never arrive. And when it did, it was hard to believe at first. In a way, getting this news reminded me of the moment when Dr. [Colin] Angliker told me: “Vince has Huntington’s.”
I felt a sense of shock and disbelief— but also, this time, a deep sense of relief. I could feel my shoulders relaxing and sense the tone of my voice softening for the first time as the news sunk in.
After confirming the details with the legal team, I sat in silence, peering through my office window— past the small lawn, the fenced-in koi pond, and the cornfields, to where the silhouette of the mountains melted into the horizon.
There was only one more person to tell, and he was understandably ecstatic to hear the news.
“Vince,” I said when I reached him by phone in prison, “we did it! You are going to be released finally to a hospital!”
Words came slowly as his mind sluggishly processed news he doubted he would ever hear. Then the silence was broken by an eruption of joyous, childlike laughter.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
I was surprised that he was still capable of laughing like that. The last rejection of his clemency appeal had almost extinguished what life force remained. But now it was coming back. The laughter continued until he teared up. Vince was like a newborn, waiting to take a breath and cry for the first time.
Once he was freed, I would be Vince’s legal guardian. It would be my responsibility to find him a clinical home that could take care of his complex needs: to begin therapy, to initiate medications, and to begin processing a lifetime of trauma.
There were no words to describe my emotions as I imagined Vince shuffling through the prison doors for the last time. I had fantasized about this moment for years. We would pick him up in our van and, per his request, drive to Asheville to eat Mellow Mushroom pizza while blaring some Bruce Springsteen. I had already received numerous gift cards from people who graciously contributed to his first night out.
But unfortunately, that night still has not come.
People ask me often about Vince’s case. How is he doing? How is his health? Has he been set free?
In the weeks after the governor’s announcement, my answer was joyous: He had been granted clemency! He would finally receive appropriate medical care! He would find a new home in a hospital and be seen as a patient for the first time in nearly two decades, no longer a prisoner!
But as time went on, my answer had to change.
Weeks, then months passed by while the Commonwealth of Virginia slow-walked the process of granting Vince his freedom. In our clemency petition, we made one request to the governors of Virginia: to transfer Vince to a hospital where he would receive care and remain for the rest of his life. But the Commonwealth of Virginia refused to collaborate on transferring him from Marion to one of their state mental hospitals— which was only a few hundred feet away, sharing a parking lot with the prison. The official explanation was that it was our responsibility to land him in a hospital. And that was easier said than done.
As one of the psychiatrists at the mental hospital told me, “I can’t just let him in.” They needed the collaboration and accord of the Department of Mental Health and, of course, the Department of Corrections. “An inmate can’t just walk over here; it takes extensive coordination.”
I wondered if the Commonwealth just didn’t want him on their hands, a reminder of the miscarriage of justice that had led to a seriously ill man rotting in prison for years instead of receiving care. I imagined that they were tired of the press and didn’t want to pay to house him for the rest of his life.
They wanted him to be someone else’s problem. They didn’t care about getting him treatment or righting a wrong. And, strangely, they didn’t care that it cost more to house Vince in prison than in a hospital.
I began to feel something akin to embarrassment, or guilt, at having to explain to people that even though Vince had been granted clemency, he was still awaiting transfer. It sounded ludicrous. I told people that Vince must be one of the only clemency-granted incarcerated persons in the whole country. Even though he was a free man, Vince was still sitting in a cell, still being punished in solitary confinement— or, in prison parlance, “administrative segregation.”
To Vince, it was “the hole,” and it was still torture.
We sprang into action. We petitioned every public mental hospital in the state of Virginia to take Vince on as a patient. Without help from the Virginia Department of Mental Health or support from the attorney general’s office, everyone refused.
I asked the appropriate public mental hospitals in North Carolina, but they required that Vince first be in a Virginia hospital for a state-to-state transfer. Vince was stuck in a bizarre no-man’s-land.
“It would only take picking up the phone, one call from someone in the governor’s office or Mental Health, to get him across the damn street!” I fumed to Deirdre one afternoon after a particularly fruitless attempt to convince another government official to act.
We quickly came to the conclusion that our only options were private hospitals. After transferring Vince to a private hospital in any state, he would be eligible to transfer into a public hospital in North Carolina like Broughton. But those places also had long waiting lists. I learned that the neurobehavioral center in Black Mountain, a public mental health hospital that had a history of taking Huntington’s patients, had a waiting list of up to three years. It could take months for a geriatric bed to open up at Broughton. With closure after closure of our state mental hospitals, few options remained for people experiencing chronic, severe mental illness.
Getting Vince out would cost money— a lot of it. Simply transferring him from Virginia to North Carolina would cost $10,000 for an ambulance ride. One month at Mission Hospital in Asheville would cost a minimum of $45,000, and we might need three months.
So in August 2022, we started a fundraising campaign for Vince’s case. I directed anyone who asked about Vince, anyone who cared about medicine and justice, to donate to a fund that would pay for private care for Vince so that we could extricate him from Virginia.
The response was extraordinary.
As of this writing, we have raised more than $100,000 for Vince. People gave a little—$5 here, $10 there—and people gave a lot. What touched me was that close to 1,500 people chose to act. These individual actions also made a statement to Virginia: The continued incarceration of a now 60-year-old terminally ill man who could no longer walk—and who was legally a free man—was unacceptable, the very definition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Just as the funds started to add up, my own father fell seriously ill. It was soon apparent that he did not have long to live.
One afternoon, sitting next to his bed, I asked him, “Dad, what will it take to achieve justice for Vince?”
My father barely had the strength to do more than breathe. But lifting his head, he opened his eyes and grasped my hand.
“Love,” he said. “It requires love.”
“Vince deserves to die with the same love and support I am receiving. Don’t we all? He deserves dignity. He deserves forgiveness. This is justice.”
My father’s words were unequivocal: Vince deserved the same compassionate care he was receiving. He told me that he’d always wanted to meet Vince, that Vince felt strangely like family. He said he was proud of my commitment and perseverance. “This is the work that priests should be doing, too,” he said.
A few days later my father, Lyonel Wayman Gilmer, died, surrounded by his loving family, a compassionate palliative care team, and an empathetic young priest from his church who aspired to be the humanistic leader that my father was. Together we cared for him until his last breath.
Since he left us, my father’s words have echoed in my brain.
Love. It requires love.
In those dark days, I felt lost. I felt guilty. But my father’s words, and his example, spurred me to continue the fight for Vince. He taught me that it is our duty to help those who are less fortunate. As I mourned his death, I was once again inspired by his example, his love for service. My father believed in the power of compassion. He understood that every human life was worth saving—that everyone deserved mercy.
Ten years ago, when my father had his cardiac bypass surgery, Sarah Koenig and I were sprinting to finish our This American Life piece. And in the wake of my father’s death, I once again went on a full-court press, calling everyone I knew to find a landing spot for Vince in a hospital.
I had learned over the course of my now decade-long advocacy journey that people inherently want to do what’s right, but that means battling one’s entrenched internal biases, overcoming fear, and working to shatter the inertia of complacency. It means making the harder decision. It means sometimes sacrificing yourself.
I had also learned the power of stories to change people’s minds. Many readers of this book had told me that Vince’s story inspired them to start their own advocacy journeys. Perhaps, I thought, the same change of heart that Gov. Northam experienced would occur with the hospital leaders I had been hounding on the telephone.
That is exactly what happened.
In fall 2022, I approached the lead psychiatrist at Mission Hospital in Asheville who asked about Vince. She had just read this book, she said, and had been moved by it.
“What can I do to help?” she asked.
Over the ensuing months, we had numerous meetings with lawyers, the public relations teams, the CEOs, and COOs, the psychiatry team, the Virginia attorney general, state public health officials, and other hospitals.
And then, the week before Thanksgiving, Mission Hospital officially decided to take Vince as a transitional step to long-term care. Eleven months after Northam’s clemency reversal, after nearly nineteen years of incarceration, he would begin his healing journey—and it would be in his own community hospital.
He was getting out.
I got the news as I was preparing to fly to Virginia to give a rural health talk about Vince. Just before boarding, I spoke to Vince.
“Vince!” I yelled. “We found a bed for you!”
There was silence on the other end of the line. It went on for so long that I thought maybe we had been disconnected. Or maybe Vince didn’t believe me. After so many years, and so many setbacks, he was cautious about any good news.
But then I heard something that surfaced rarely: laughter. Childlike, joyful, unrestrained laughter.
There were no words after that. We didn’t need to say a thing to each other.
Vince laughed. I listened.
I wanted to shout it out loud to everyone around me in the Asheville airport, so they could understand my endless smile, and tearful eye: This Thanksgiving, Vince was coming home.
But Thanksgiving came and went.
Vince waited, confused that his home hospital was not expediting his admission. I was confused, too, as they slow-walked the process. I felt confident Mission Hospital would be his bridge to freedom. The psychiatry team was advocating for him as was the CEO of the hospital. We had had meetings with everyone I could imagine: public relations, their legal team, psychiatrists and social workers.
As the November deadline for the paperback of this book rapidly approached, I was given the greenlight by the hospital to write a new post-script to reflect the good news that Vince was coming home.
But he didn’t.
This had become our new holiday tradition – another failed promise.
“Vince, this will be your last Christmas behind bars!”I would tell him.
He believed it. I willed it. Together, we had faith that the Governor would make the right decision and believed that Mission hospital would do the same.
But, Vince was losing faith in me. I was losing faith in me, too and wondered what truth was left in my words.
When New Year’s rolled around and no one at the hospital was returning my calls, I went to the Mission CEO’s secretary and set-up a meeting. Several days later I was summoned to his office along with the head of the psychiatric hospital. The small talk lasted too long. This was a bad sign.
Finally, the CEO said, “We can’t do it.”
My body immediately froze. There was no anger, no emotion, no gesture of what I was feeling. I wanted to scream, “what the hell! You dragged us along for four months. There is a free, terminally ill man dying in prison – one of our own – and this hospital is his only way out.”
They were confused, expecting a reaction from me. The CEO smiled and said “I’m sorry.” He was relieved that I wasn’t angry. I was way past that. I was broken and had nothing left to say.
They had their risk averse reasons, of course, as everyone else did leading up to this moment. There was concern that he might harm one of the staff; anxiety that he might be stuck in their hospital without an exit plan; but mostly they were fearful that Vince’s admission might somehow inspire some negative press.
I was fearful that Vince would die soon, as a prisoner, before experiencing dignity as a free man, as a patient.
I was afraid that our system, my medical home, was so broken that it couldn’t rise up to save one of its own when he needed us the most.
I was tired of being broken again, realizing that the hospital where I grew up, the institution that formed me, had become a for-profit machine that weighed profits and image more than “reverence for life.”
As we continue to look for a medical home for Vince, I often wonder: “Who are we? What has our healing profession become?”
Vince’s injustices have challenged my core belief system about healing in America and my role in affecting a system that is so large one feels powerless to make a difference.. Fighting for Vince has empowered and taught me that one can make a difference, both as a physician and advocate, but mostly as a human.
I remain hopeful that another healthcare entity will be courageous enough to be responsible for Vince’s care. Until this happens, Vince will remain a dying man in prison. We are a month into negotiations, but as a non-for-profit organization, they are asking different questions.
“How can we serve Vince best?”
Vince, now confined mostly to a wheelchair, is hopeful that his freedom awaits him soon, that next Christmas he will be home.
Dr. Benjamin Gilmer is a family medicine physician in Asheville and an International Albert Schweitzer Fellow for Life and associate professor in the department of family medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill and at the Mountain Area Health Education Center. A former neurobiologist, he has lectured widely about medical ethics, rural health, and the intersection of medicine and criminal justice reform.