A child’s mystery illness has cast a struggling Payson family into a crisis that has grown increasingly common, as the medical bills and demands triggered a job loss and bills, bills, bills.
But the battered Austins have also discovered miracles of support through social media, rallying people to their cause through Facebook and other connections.
“Christian went from a happy, healthy baby to paralyzed in less than an hour,” reads the story of Christian Austin on the “Team Christian” Facebook page. More than 10,000 people from around the world have joined to pray and receive updates on the status of the seriously ill Payson baby.
Essentially bankrupted by medical bills, the family has obtained coverage of basic medical costs through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS). The mostly federal program with state matching funds covers about 30 percent of the residents of Gila County. The state Legislature this year made deep cuts in AHCCCS, which has left some 250,000 children on the waiting list for coverage statewide.
However, supporters have been raising money to help the family deal with the enormous additional costs imposed by the ailment and the constant trips to Phoenix.
In March this year, at 11 months old, Christian suddenly took desperately ill with a fever and paralyzed arms. Medical professionals flew him from Payson to Phoenix Children’s Hospital where he has remained since.
Details on what caused Christian’s fever and paralysis remain murky, but doctors believe a Chiari Malformation (CM) caused Christian’s illness.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke describes CM as a malformation of the brain. When the bony space at the bottom of the skull forms too small an opening for the base of the brain, brain matter and the brain stem get pushed downward creating a bulge of brain tissue. The pressure causes the spinal fluid to stop flowing, which gives rise to a host of symptoms including dizziness, headaches, vision problems and sometimes paralysis.
The cure for CM usually involves an operation to widen the opening at the base of the skull to relieve pressure, but Christian has not needed this operation.
Instead, doctors gave him corticosteroids, which have reduced the swelling, but left Christian with paralysis in his arms, part of his legs and diaphragm, and unable to eat.
After a couple of weeks of intensive care, doctors performed a tracheostomy and placed a tube into his stomach to feed him. These procedures got the tubes out of Christian’s face, allowing him more mobility.
Early tests determined he would never have the use of his arms again, but as he started physical therapy, miracles happened. Christian’s arms started moving. His diaphragm healed so he now can eat solid foods.
“We hope to bring him home at the end of July,” said Gary Austin, Christian’s father.
Gary and his wife Dori attribute his recovery, despite the findings of the tests, to prayers. On their Facebook page, they express their eternal gratitude for the thousands of people who have donated resources to allow them to remain by Christian’s side throughout the ordeal.
One of the many people to help the Austins is Payson resident Harold Snyder. He met Dori when he sat at her Mazatzal Casino blackjack table and she dealt him his cards. He and his wife have helped other families in Payson who go through similar situations by donating money and bringing awareness to the public.
The Snyders recently visited Christian at the hospital two weeks ago. “My wife started holding him and he’s using his arms,” said Snyder, “He tried to play with her ring and grab her glasses.”
While one side of the story includes miracles and prayers, the other side involves more heartache and troubles.
When Christian first got sick, his father worked for a local counseling agency. For weeks he drove up and down the Beeline Highway to Phoenix Children’s Hospital and returned each day to work. The gas bills ate up what remained of his paycheck after he paid health insurance costs.
Then, at the end of June, he was fired for allegedly seeking to adopt a foster child he had counseled.
His former employer declined any comment on the case.
Gary suspects that the cost of his son’s illness for the health care plan might have also played a role. On the Team Christian Facebook page, Gary posted copies of bills for Christian’s room and care. One month of care costs $395,000.
More alarming, the family still has not seen the bills for additional services.
“My (former employer’s) health care has paid out over half a million dollars,” said Gary.
Gary said another employee had already adopted a foster child, so he believed he could as well. However, his employer concluded the adoption violated a counselor’s code of ethics.
Gary says that’s how he heard about other cases in which people were allegedly fired after a serious illness had a big impact on a company health plan.
Lucky for the Austins, Phoenix Children’s Hospital guided the couple through the application process for AHCCCS. The health care plan for low-income people, people with disabilities and nursing home residents covers 16,000 Gila County residents and about 1.3 million state residents. The program costs about $9 billion annually, with about $7 billion to $8 billion coming from the federal government.
The Legislature recently reduced the AHCCCS rolls substantially to save the state match. Federal health care reforms would provide 90 percent of the money to expand the program from families below the poverty level to also cover those making 30 to 50 percent above the poverty level. However, state officials have said they would likely oppose expansion of the program, despite the federal funding.
“As soon as they put the trache in his neck, the state put us on Altec and AHCCCS,” said Gary. “It’s such a blessing to have Children’s Hospital.”
AHCCCS will also provide coverage for families whose medical bills greatly exceed their income, a provision that keeps many hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with unpaid bills for people treated in an emergency.
He feels extremely grateful that insurance will pick up his bills and people have covered the family’s living expenses.
“The majority of bankruptcies are for medical bills,” said Gary.
Medical bills account for an estimated 62 percent of bankruptcies in the U.S., one of the only industrialized countries without universal health care, according to Harvard Medical School researcher David Himmelstein. That works out to 2.4 million people annually. Of those bankrupted by their medical bills, 80 percent actually have health insurance. By contrast, bankruptcy due to medical bills remains unheard of in countries like Canada.
Gary focuses on the positive in his life. His son slowly has regained the use of his arms, legs and diaphragm. The family hopes to return home to Payson at the end of the month. And Gary could have a new job with Child Protective Services by then.
Gary also hopes to keep up the good work through Facebook to help other children and their families. He already has a non-profit organization for Team Christian which he would use as he did for Victoria, a co-patient with Christian.
Gary set up the group page called Stem Cells for Toya. Already, a wealthy donor has put up over $500,000 to aid this little girl in obtaining stem cells when her insurance would not pay for the procedure.
“I want to help,” said Gary.