U.S. Army trained medic survived near death from alcohol abuse

Eah Housing Michael McCall, a Willow Housing resident

Menlo Park, California, November 2017 - “At this stage I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in 25 years,” said Michael McCall, 54, now a Willow Housing resident in Menlo Park, Calif. “It was hard. I drank a lot. It wasn’t crack or crystal meth, but Chardonnay can kill you.”

In more than two decades as a U.S. Army-trained medic and emergency room technician, McCall brought more than a few dying people back from the brink. In his late 40s, he found himself on that same brink. After he was laid off and unable to land a new job, alcohol abuse nearly killed him. But with rehab help, McCall brought himself back to life.

Unleashing his creativity also helped. At Willow Housing, adjacent to a Veterans Administration healthcare campus, McCall has turned his 400-square-foot studio apartment into a comforting, yet otherworldly “3D canvas.” Its walls and ceiling are hung with paintings, colored scarves and fabric, and a potpourri of art objects, including star and flower imagery, mirrors and angel figures. McCall says he found virtually every piece of his hand-picked decor in thrift stores.

Michael McCall's ceiling canvas inside his studio apartment at Willow Housing.

Healthcare experiences with dying people and personal spiritual reflection are what McCall says led him to start his intensive interior decorating. He began the work after moving into the Salvation Army’s Railton Place transitional housing as part of his recovery from alcohol abuse.

At Willow Housing, a 60-apartment community exclusively for veterans at risk of becoming homeless or who have been homeless, he has continued and expanded his live-in artwork.

McCall grew up in Denver, Colo., the son of the city’s first female African American narcotics detective. Tough on perpetrators, McCall’s mother was also tough on him. At 19 he joined the U.S. Army to go out on his own and get an education.

After serving in the Army for three years at Letterman Hospital in the San Francisco Presidio, McCall left the military. He continued working as an ER tech for healthcare providers, including Kaiser Permanente, St. Mary’s Medical Center and UCSF Medical Center. But after he was laid off, he gradually sank into depression.

During four years living in what he calls a “bedbug hotel,” alcohol abuse landed him several times in an intensive care unit. Suffering from tremors, he came close to dying. That’s when McCall went into rehab at the Harbor Light Salvation Army program in San Francisco. “It was the best move I ever made,” he said.

After Harbor Light and the stint at Railton Place, McCall applied for Veterans Administration assistance. He qualified and in 2016 soon found his way to becoming one of Willow Housing’s first residents. There he maintains his recovery by eating a mostly vegetarian diet and exercising every day. He uses Willow Housing’s gym and runs 10 to 15 miles a week.

“Willow Housing is excellent; for me it’s a blessing,” said McCall. “The whole building — EAH put a lot of thought and energy and effort into it.”