Life can be seen in almost anything &

from a smile, to a tomato.

Jeff Prevatt walks the halls of Linda Vista with his fullback-like stature, smiling as if he's holding in a funny joke, pushing a cart of pills.

"I have to start up here," he says, as he raises his hand above his head, "cause if I start down here like a lot of the other workers, then I'd be yelling at everyone. Then no one would take their pills which would make my job hard.

"Plus, I enjoy making people laugh."

He interacts with every resident and employee in the building as he walks by, whether he makes small talk, a wise crack or just says "hi."

As he approaches the lobby, he comes to an old man on a wheelchair.

"Hey Russell, I got your plants planted," he says.

"Good," Russell responds. "I'll take you out and show you later."

"I can't wait."

Jeff is an avid gardener. The plants that he has planted are giant tomatoes that Russell ordered out of a catalog.

"I don't know if they're gonna grow," Jeff says as he passes an employee.

Whether they grow or not, he will continue to nurture them. Even if they are dying and withering away, he will still be out there watering them. Because, to Jeff, it's more than just tending to some tomatoes, it's caring about life.

Origins of care

Jeff was born and raised in Medford, but he says he's been blind to seeing people as minorities or majorities all his life. Raised by his mother, Nancy, he grew up on welfare and also lived with his grandmother, who was paraplegic from polio.

"Growing up, I didn't realize that she was handicapped," he says. "My grandma was a tough old woman."

It helped him see that disabled people had abilities, and it helped him learn to laugh and joke with everyone he encounters.

"It really helped me in my job, 'cause I treat everyone the same whether they're black, white, no arms, no legs."

After graduating from North Medford High School, Jeff enlisted in the Army. When he returned home, he studied two years at Rogue Community College to become a licensed practical nurse and he married his high school sweetheart. But because of his service in the Army he was often gone, and the two grew apart. After five years of an on-again-off-again marriage, the two separated.

He moved to Sacramento, Calif., for a while, then decided to move back to Southern Oregon and take a job at Linda Vista, where his stepfather worked. He's been there since 1997.

"We're just a big family here," he says about the nursing home. "We argue and fight just like we're brother and sister."

Jeff's job consists of documentation and paperwork with the medication he distributes. He knows everyone's name, what they receive and how they want it. "Some of the residents are very particular in how they like their meds," he says. "I do my best to give it to them how they like it: Whole with water, whole with juice, crushed in pudding, crushed in applesauce."

One part that is not in his job description is being a comedian. With everyone he interacts with, he is likely to goof-off with them.

"I try to act like the court jester," he says. "I can be serious when I need to be serious. But most people don't want you to be."

It's the way Jeff has always been. He simply enjoys making people laugh.

"When I was growing up, I would jump in a mud puddle if it would make people laugh."

Multitasking

He stands at his cart, filling out paperwork and preparing a dose of medication for the next resident as Russell pushes himself toward Jeff with one foot, while the other rests on a foot rest. He resembles a one-legged Fred Flintstone.

"Jeff, I can't find no one to take me out to water my tomatoes," Russell says as he pushes himself through the hall.

"Well, it's too hot right now," responds Jeff.

"I was just gonna get the roots."

"How bout when the sun goes down I'll take you out there."

Russell keeps moving through the hall and into his room. Jeff, with the ability to multitask and carry multiple conversations at one time, picks up right where he left off.

"So I might be helping someone pass today," he says. "It's not that I feel bad taking someone out of their misery, but I'm pretty much killing them."

It's a strong statement but it's not to be taken literally. The medication Jeff gives does not instantaneously kill anyone. It slows down their respiration, keeping them comfortable and helping them deal with pain. As doses increase, the lifetime of a person does become shorter.

The process is one only administered when requested by the residents' family and doctor. Jeff has mixed feelings about it, but overall he thinks it is for the best.

"First it depends on the person," he explains. "Say they're real sick and have no chance of pulling out of it. And the family's okay with it and the doctor's okay with it, I really have no problem keeping people comfortable."

Jeff thinks that society is more humane to animals than to people.

"If a cat gets hit by a car and can barely live, we put it to sleep so it can get out of its misery," he says. "So when somebody passes, I'm happy to see them go. It's definitely a moral issue and my morals are not against it."

Jeff says when his grandmother died from pancreatic cancer, it was at home, in the living room, with the help of hospice. He says he watched her suffer first-hand.

"It's kinda selfish if you ask me, to make someone stick around if they don't want to."

Personal tragedy

He had to make a life-and-death decision of his own last year. After his divorce Jeff had met a woman named Karen in 2000. They married in 2002. Karen brought a daughter into the marriage &

a daughter Jeff treated as if she were his own.

"I taught her how to ride a bike, how to read and do math, and how to play catch." he says. He coached her youth softball team.

In 2006, Karen suffered a near fatal case of pancreatitis. When she stopped breathing in the hopsital, he was given the choice to resuscitate her or not. He decided not to, giving her comfort and keeping her from further struggle.

Karen died on April 13, 2006. Three days later, custody of her daughter was awarded to her biological father. That same day Jeff crashed his motorcycle and his license was suspended.

It was a very low point in his life.

His biggest fear was not whether Karen's death would affect him, but whether he would feel it at all.

"I've seen so many people die here. I couldn't count," he says. "I was concerned that if she died, I wouldn't be able to cry."

The tears came and they didn't stop. He cried three times a day, even on the job. It didn't help that the residents kept asking how his wife and stepdaughter were.

His friends and co-workers helped him through. But he found the most strength and comfort in Bob (last name withheld), a resident who had just arrived at Linda Vista. Bob had also lost his wife but he kept forgetting. Every day he would ask where his wife was and the nurses would have to remind him that she had died.

"I thought, 'He's goin' through the same thing, and he's makin' it just fine,'" says Jeff.

And at the moment, Jeff is making it just fine, too.

He recently bought the same house he was raised in and he's created a fine garden of fruits and vegetables &

a hobby ignited by his wife's passing.

"After my wife died, life meant a little more," he says. "It even matters what I plant. I won't plant annuals 'cause they die every year."

Along with gardening, he enjoys fishing and riding his motorcycle. He lives with his three cats &

Bernice, Dory and Stupid &

two of which were left with him by his stepdaughter. He carries her picture on the back of his name tag so he can see her face anytime he wants.

Karen's memory is imprinted in his mind, but he also sees her in some of the residents.

"Some things really bug me," he says, as he finishes giving one of the residents her medicine. Lying in her bed with her eyes shut, she struggles to stretch her mouth open for her medication, let alone to breath.

"Like that lady right there. She really reminds me of my wife's face when she was on her bed. And I wonder if she would have been like that had I chosen to resuscitate her.

"It was a tough decision."

Strawberries

Jeff helps Russell out of his bed, one leg at a time. He draws Russell's wheelchair near the bed and supports him as he attempts to sit.

Jeff wheels him down the hallway, and out the side door of Linda Vista. With a few large breaths and a couple drops of sweat, Jeff pulls Russell backwards across a strip of gravel.

"Are you up to this, Jeff?" Russell asks.

"Of course. That's why I'm pulling you backwards."

Past a small patch of strawberries lie Russell's tomato plants.

"Let's see." Jeff starts counting. "One, two, three-four, five, six. Six made it." Russell points to a flimsy leaf sticking out of the soil. "I ain't countin' that one," responds Jeff.

The plants have already been watered, so the two decide to head back inside. But from the time they came out, they have had their eyes on the strawberries.

"Want a strawberry, Russ?"

"I got one down here I'm gonna get," he replies, and picks the berry from its' vine. He slowly chews the strawberry, savoring every juicy drop.

Jeff turns Russell backwards again, and they head back inside.

"All right Russ," says Jeff, "I gotta get back to passing meds. Want me to give you a ride home?"

"If you wanna."

When they reach the end of the hallway Russell reaches for Jeff's hand.

"Thanks a lot, guy," he says.

Jeff responds with a smile. "You're welcome."