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Boy’s medical bills nearly $2 million

by Linda Hiller

The things John Price has seen.

As an EMT for more than a decade, he’s witnessed the spectrum of blood and gore from violent seizures to decapitations.

But the 2-1/2 hours he spent watching two doctors take turns massaging the heart of his 11-year-old son Stephen last February was as intense as it gets.

“At one point, a doctor came over to me as I was watching them work on my son and said, ‘Are you OK with this?’ and I said, ‘There is nowhere else I could be at this moment.'”

It began three months earlier with a relatively routine hernia operation for Stephen, who was 10. In doing pre-surgery tests, doctors discovered a heart murmur. An echocardiogram later revealed a mitral valve prolapse in Stevie’s heart, but that was no reason to forego the hernia surgery, they were told.

In May 1998, the hernia was repaired. Stevie took the antibiotics that are routinely given to surgery patients to prevent, among other things, infections of the heart.

Following the surgery, Stevie’s abdomen was swollen. Doctors discovered the fluid buildup was coming from Stevie’s liver. His pediatric cardiologist, Dr. Ali Monibi of Reno, discovered a thickening of the pericardium and followed up with some diagnostic tests that confirmed Stevie’s pericardium was diseased.

A trip to the University of California, San Francisco, hospital confirmed that diagnosis, and on Nov. 13 – three days shy of his 11th birthday – Stevie had open heart surgery to remove his pericardium.

The next day, Stevie’s heart failed. That is when John Price, 41, a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician with the Douglas County Engine Company, Station 1 since 1988, watched his only son’s life literally held in the hands of the two doctors who massaged his heart.

“I’d say there were about 30 people in that room – I’ve seen a lot of people work together as a unit before, but it was so impressive how these guys all worked together,” John said. “A lot of parents might have freaked out, but in my own heart I had to be there for my son, and I had to be strong for him.”

“I think that is why John was there, and I wasn’t when it happened,” Stevie’s mom, Barb. “I would have been a wreck.”

At one point, a physician spoke to John and laid out the choices. Doctors could stop working on Stevie or he could be hooked up to a bypass machine.

“I told him I had to give my son every chance he could get, so we made the decision to put him on the machine,” John said. “Of course, we were concerned about brain damage, but that could be determined later.”

After hooking him up to the big machine, Stevie’s chest had to remain open, leaving him in a delicate, vulnerable state.

The Prices had been told that once on the heart bypass machine, there was no going back. The next step would be a heart transplant if a suitable heart became available. It could take a year or more, and though their son desperately needed a heart, how could they pray for another child to die?

“That was awful,” Barb said. “I prayed for that person’s family when I prayed for a heart for Stevie. I knew that their suffering would go along with our happiness.”

Three months later, a heart became available from a 9-year-old California boy who had drowned. By the afternoon of Feb. 5, Stevie was off the bypass machine with a new heart.

“I liked it,” Stevie recalled. “I didn’t like all those tubes.”

n Million dollar debt. While in California with Stevie in the hospitals, Barb who was pregnant, John and Katie, their 9-year-old daughter, stayed at the Family House in San Francisco and the Ronald McDonald House in Palo Alto.

The monthly mortgage bills on their Nevada home still came in while John kept up a grueling commute schedule between the hospitals and his job in Sparks as a shop foreman and outside salesman for Superior Hydraulic and Fabrication. Barb stayed in California to take care of the kids.

John said he is grateful for his job and especially the health insurance that goes with it. The bill from UCSF was more than $1.7 million, and the insurance so far has paid all but around $26,000. Barb’s maternity bill from the same facility was covered by their insurance, but they owe just under $1,600, an expense Barb said wouldn’t have been nearly as high had they been able to deliver Amy, born March 12, in the Carson Valley as planned instead of in San Francisco.

The Prices have since lost their house and currently live in a rented duplex in the Gardnerville Ranchos.

n An angel appears. When a friend of Barb’s heard of the Price’s situation, she decided she had to help.

“At that time, they had lost the home and were living in a 10-foot-by-10-foot trailer,” said Sonja Donaldson, who had worked with Barb at Sharkey’s Nugget over the years. “I thought, ‘I want to do something – after all, aren’t we all our brother’s keeper?’ I think sometimes we need to be reminded just how fragile life is, and I am not ashamed to ask for help for them. It could happen to anybody.”

Donaldson took their plight to St. Gall Catholic Church in Gardnerville, where parishioners took up a collection. She has also opened a bank account to help pay the Prices’ medical costs. The account is No. 6612863299, and every cent from those donations will go to pay the medical bills, Barb said.

n Good prognosis. Stevie’s future will involve taking lots of pills each day, biopsies to check his heart and guarding against infections. Other than that, his heart should grow with him and could never need replacing, John said.

For now, Stevie swallows more than 20 pills each day and enjoys the challenge of video games and computer activities.

Stevie, who has always earned straight As in school up to now, said he would like to write children’s books to help other kids with transplants, John said.

Because both kids lost so much school time, they are in a catch-up mode. Katie is in the 4th grade at C.C. Meneley Elementary School, and Stevie, who should be in 6th grade, will be home-schooled.

One of the therapeutic acts the Prices performed was to compose a letter of thanks to the family of the heart donor. They hope to meet them and thank them someday, but it will be up to the donor family.

“We know how hard it must be for them,” Barb said. “Perhaps they’re still grieving. We told them how grateful we are in the letter, but I have a feeling we’ll meet face-to-face someday.”