What a year for our family.
December, 19th, 2011 : The day we got the official news about Savanna. It was a day filled with anxiety and nervousness. Savanna had been through a lot in the last few days and we as parents had learned a great deal about her probable condition. We were just waiting in the hospital on a Sunday afternoon, as we were told the doctor(s) were finally going to talk to us. Then it happened. Almost out of the blue, a team of doctors came in mid-afternoon. Leading the way, and the only one who spoke was Dr. Mary Zupanc. She said to us, “You have to mourn the loss of your normal child. She is gone. You need to start to prepare yourselves for what may be a very long and difficult journey.” She went further to warn us that “90% of all marriages with a special needs child like Savanna, end in divorce.” We didn’t know anything about anything at that point, and we later learned she was new to the CHOC family. Her employment was the beginning of a new direction intended to make CHOC a leader in the pediatric neurology field. The only cases she handled were refractory or intractable (severe & rare) in nature. I don’t think we fully realized what that meant at the time. It wasn’t until much later after the ACTH therapy, after the necrotizing pneumonia, after multiple LTM EEG’s, the installation of a permanent G-Tube, that the denial had worn off and we began to grasp the magnitude of our situation with Savanna.
Looking back, we could not have been more blessed than to be admitted when Dr Zupanc was overseeing the EEG monitoring at CHOC. The Dr. reading the LTM patients EEG results alternate and Dr Z has the 1st and 4th week of every month. Had she not been there, we might be in a very different situation. She taught us just how catastrophic the seizure activity was for a baby of Savanna’s age. More importantly, awareness of how critical it is to arrest seizures in children under 2 by any and all heroic action available. Not acting aggressively can mean the difference between very different outcomes in development. If you have read any of my recent posts, you know that this is not a widely accepted principle in neurology. God was watching Savanna, and while the situation was bad, we could not have been in a better facility in terms of care for her specific needs.
The EEG report from the VTM ending on December 18th read, “possible lesion on left temporal lobe”. Here we are about 11 months later recovering from epilepsy surgery where a cortical dysplasia lesion was removed from the temporal-parietal-occipital region of her left hemisphere. For me personally, it is a day of reflection about what we have been through and how far she has come in such a short time. I have taken the time in the middle of the night to go back through some of the pictures and the emotions of that day 12 months ago and many memories are still very vivid in my heart. Some memories have faded. Some memories I wish I could change by having behaved differently at that time. However, trying to grasp the realities of the situation was difficult, almost impossible until we had a chance to live through it. It reminds me a lot of the birth of our first child. Many of you can relate to this. You prepare, read the books, etc. But some things you just can’t learn until the baby is delivered and you have a chance to experience it first-hand. For many, it changes life dramatically. Savanna has changed our lives by educating us about how typical life is such a miracle. A few statistics surrounding her journey from December 19 2011 thru December 19, 2012.
· 57 typical RX scripts filled, total insurance billing, around $25,000
· 14 Specialty Drug RX scripts totaling $164,000
· Total processed health claims for Savanna, $798,000
· Total processed health claims for the rest of family was an additional $85,000
· 90+ days in the hospital with Savanna, 14 days with Tristan
· 60+ hours on the phone during the second half of the year with the insurance company and service providers when Anthem’s system began filing Savanna’s claims under Austin when we went onto Cobra. This resulted in many denied claims, and a waves of collections against us as the bills began accumulating quickly.
· Gratitude that we have been financially fortunate and were both able to work and save for a “rainy day” prior to this experience.
· Empathy for the 1000’s of families facing similar situations who cannot possibly be as fortunate as we are.
Savanna is not free of epilepsy, but seems to be free from the very disruptive seizures the were halting her development and assuring entrance into the contingent of Lennox-Gastaut sufferers. Dr. Nitin Tandon performed the surgery and his office billed our insurance company $9999.00 for his services – of which his office collected a payment of $3292 from our insurance company. It is an unbelievably small amount of money for such a far-reaching, life-altering procedure. Compared to other types of surgeries, the cost versus benefit is off the chart and that is really an unfortunate reality. That translates long term to surgical talent that is less likely to choose a path of epilepsy surgery expertise when they can make 5 or 10x as much money performing elective spinal fusions for example. The vast majority of patients like Savanna are misdiagnosed and do not have the opportunity for such a procedure so early in life.
The changes in our lives as a result of Savanna’s birth have been significant. We relocated our family. I resigned from the workforce temporarily to manage and guide her care. Rebecca took a new position in GE, and is dealing with a frustrating work environment that won’t allow success. We contracted as a family earlier in the year, as we began to face fiscal challenges once foreign to us. We are contracting again at the end of 2012 in light of the increased tax burden undoubtedly being put on our shoulders. This situation has altered our financial planning which we once thought was sound. Action has been required to stay solvent, and these lessons will be passed on to our children. Direct medical expenses related to Savanna’s care were a fraction of the total listed above, but the soft costs not directly attributed to Savanna’s condition were and are enormous and never seem to stop. I have arrived at an understanding of why families earning far less would simply give up and let their neighbors pay for it through a vehicle called Medicaid. We will never in our lifetime pay in Medicare taxes equivalent to what Savanna’s care cost during her first year of life. To simply entitle ourselves to this presumed benefit is morally and ethically wrong in our opinion. Regardless of the schooling, we will without fail teach our children that there are better ways to help those in need than government programs.
Watching our daughter suffer, tested our resolve. It was so difficult, that I honestly believe death would have been easier to deal with during her most difficult periods. Experiencing her seizures was like anticipation of imminent death for me. There was a bit of numbness that developed as at some level you can only handle so much before your body just simply starts to shut down emotionally. Writing this blog in many ways is one of my few outlets as I work through my personal emotions with words.
December has been a little tough as we had a confirmed case of RSV in the house in early December, and guess who it was, of course, Savanna. While we were worried about complications, she managed to pull through it well. Austin and Brandon probably had it too, as they were really sick for about 10 days. Tristan managed to head it off, but did have a few sickly days. Rebecca and I both got it too, eventually, but it turned out to be pretty light in terms of effect on us. Savanna had a swallow function study on the 11th, which is where they determine how well she transfers thick and thin fluid from her mouth to her esophagus. She did great with no signs of aspiration. We started to push the post-oral feeds and she is doing well. Then she developed a UTI, and that was really unpleasant for all of us. Through this, I undoubtedly witnessed seizures with Savanna. At some level, it was to be expected. I increased some of her medication, which slowed the downward titration, but managed to keep the seizures at bay. As of the 19th, everyone is healthy.
Moving forward, Savanna is doing good with her physical therapy and we will be adding speech and occupational therapy in the coming weeks. We will undergo another LTM/VEEG January 16th so see if she is experiencing any abnormal brain activity or seizures in a 24 hour period. Once off the Keto diet, which will be early January, she will have an overnight sleep study to make sure she is maintaining oxygen saturation levels. We will switch from Sabril to a conventional AED (anti-epileptic drug), which she will be on for at least 1 year post operative as a standard protocol.
So here we are, on the cusp of another trip, contemplating the feasibility of traveling with Savanna. We have enough drugs to manage almost any seizure related situation. I have called ahead and know where the diagnostic equipment and expertise resides in Louisville. All indications are that we are headed back to Louisville for Christmas for a few days.
Our heartfelt thanks go out to all of you who express interest enough to read this and follow her journey. Your thoughts and prayers have not gone unheard, and God is speaking through Savanna. From our family to yours, we would like to wish you a Merry Christmas.
Rebecca’s comments and commentary –
As we look back on the words Dr Zupanc chose, and the candid and the direct manner in which she delivered them, we now realize how fortunate we were to have her deliver these messages to us as directly as she did. We’ve recounted this story a number of times, and those who love us most have had the immediate reaction to have wanted to protect us from the perceived lack of bedside manner. It was the hardest thing we’ve ever had to hear. But, truth was necessary. It was necessary to prepare us for what lay ahead. It was necessary and the kindest, gentlest decision that Dr. Z made to let us know that we would face a very tough road, and that if we didn’t cling to and look out for each other and our marriage, that we too could easily be one of the 90%. Over the number of times Ken & I have looked back on this experience as we have gone through the trials of parenting under these circumstances, I believe we found extra patience, kindness, and support for each other, and I am grateful for her wisdom & candor.
As proud patriots and active fiscal conservatives, it has been interesting to face the challenges of health care costs first hand. Ken is adamant that he would sell everything we owned before we asked a neighbor or stranger to pay a single cent for our health care. We are fortunate enough not to require assistance at this time. Commentary: It’s not the very poor, or the very wealthy that are crushed by medical expenses in our society, it’s those in the middle, making $50K – $300K / year. The poor receive better medical care than those of us with the best insurance money can buy. Those in the middle can truly be crushed. We have stayed on top of every bill and every insurance submission. We have been adamant that we pay to the doctors what is contractually fair. Even with this vigilance from 2 masters degree engineers who have held executive positions with top companies, we have seen a number of threatening letters regarding delinquent account status, as the collection companies & the insurance companies figure it out between each other. Ultimately, it is straightening itself out, but we wonder what the impact on our credit rating of all these mistakes and poor coordination between the insurance companies and the service providers. We were able to prepare for this, and we made strategic purchases in advance of this step into financial quicksand, but there should be some way to help the average family who faces this experience.
In our liberal government’s infinite wisdom, President Obama has taken away one of the true benefits to special needs families, by far one of the cruelest tax hikes hidden in Obamacare. He has reduced the amount of money one can save by using a flexible spending account from $5K to $2500 effective in 2013. This may not seem like much to many of you, but at a 25% federal tax bracket, that’s the cash equivalent of a $625/year tax increase. To us now, and many of the families we’ve met through this experience, it means the difference between being able to pay for therapy for their child or respite care for themselves or not. To reiterate the point, the very poor and well-off won’t be affected by this change, only those in the middle who actually implement the shelter. This is one of many egregious hikes hidden in Obamacare known by many, talked about by few. Simply put, President Obama intends to pay for his single largest entitlement plan in the history of entitlements in the history of the world on the backs of the very people he claims to be helping or targeting for this entitlement. It is without doubt the greatest fleecing of America in her history, and very sad to watch it unfold.
We trust that you will continue to place your votes based on your own personal beliefs, but we’ll make a modest request to you to ask that you please look deeper than the marketing hype when casting your future ballots. Please challenge our politicians regardless of party to address the root cause of expense, waste, & ineffectiveness in our government, whether the issue is health care, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, immigration or other. We are the greatest nation on earth, and there are Christian solutions to the problems we must solve together as a nation, if we will only hold our leaders truly accountable for being problem solvers and choosing to advocate & implement real solutions vs. just their marketing, lies, & hatred of the opposite party.
When we addressed the meager amount that our neurosurgeon’s office had settled for, we learned more about the healthcare situation in our country. He indicated that less than 5% of the children who are candidates for radical life-changing epilepsy surgery like Savanna’s ever even find out that they are candidates. There are only a hand full of pediatric epileptologists in the country who could have diagnosed a case like Savanna’s properly. The reason for this is that the real money in medicine goes to other specialties like orthopedics and procedures such as spinal fusion. The insurance companies base their reimbursement rates on Medicare. Medicare bases its reimbursement rates on lobbying. Medical device companies & pharmaceutical companies have much stronger lobbies than the epilepsy foundation. A surprising statistic that he shared with us is that 80% of back surgeries are unnecessary, and 60% require a 2nd surgery within 10 years after the 1st. Yet these surgeons are paid 10X for each back surgery than neurosurgeons are paid for truly life changing surgeries. That is not to say that no back surgeries offer positive, life-altering results. But, reimbursement rates should be based on successful outcomes, not lobbying. The most cost-effective healthcare programs in the world work on this basis.
I don’t share this with you to make you hate or judge big pharma, medical device companies, or Orthopedic surgeons. We passionately advocate capitalism, and we are so grateful to big pharma that they had the money to invest in the many drugs Savanna has needed and will continue to need. They will never recover their investment in many of these medicines, yet they continue to develop them at a loss, based on their guiding principles. I share it with you, because it is facts like this that cause our best & brightest not to choose to go into neurosurgery unless they have a driving personal passion to do so.
I’ll leave you with one final thought. My prayer during this journey has been simply to our Lord to “carry me” and to carry Ken. This comes from the depth of my soul as I recount a poem that I read frequently as a little girl. Many of you are probably familiar with the poem / prayer “footprints”, if not, I’ll recount if for you here:
“One night, a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed two sets of footprints, one belonging to him, and the other to the Lord. When the last scene of his life had flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that during the saddest and most challenging times in his life, he saw only one set of footprints. This really bothered the man, and he questioned the Lord about it. “Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you would walk with me all the way. I have noticed that during the saddest times of my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why when I needed you most, you would leave me.” The Lord answered, “My son, my precious child, I love you, and I would never leave you. During the hardest times of your life when you see only one set of footprints in the sand, it was then that I carried you.”
There have been so many times throughout this journey that I haven’t even known what to pray for. I have simply prayed, “please carry me God”, and He has. May He carry you, when you need it. May He send angels to you to guide you and share your path. May we not question His purpose, yet continue on this journey supporting each other.
Last year, when Savanna was first diagnosed, my sister in law, Kenia, and my parents gave up their Christmas to come be with us. Dad went to church, and the priest said something that will always stick with me. He didn’t say, have a Merry Christmas, he said, have a Blessed Christmas. That is what we wish for you, a very Blessed Christmas.
To leave this post on a lighter note, Mom, Dad, & Kenia joined me for Christmas Eve service with the boys last year. As we were leaving, Dad pointed up to the sky and asked Tristan if he thought the bright red light up there was Rudolf’s red nose. I’ll never forget Tristan studying the sky, then looking back at my Dad, Grandpa Squiz, and candidly saying, “That’s an airplane, you idiot”:) It was rude, but admittedly hysterical. Ken broke Savanna out of the hospital on Christmas day and we were together. My friend Thuy visited us shortly thereafter. If you don’t know Thuy, she’s not the warm, fuzzy, emotional type, but she’s a true friend. It’s hard to know what to say to someone like us who had just experienced what we had, but she said, “No matter what, Savanna will be loved.” It was truly comforting, and she was right. Savanna will always be loved and she’ll be loved more fiercely, and in a way I never could have imagined before this experience.