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Surviving medical debt: meet a local family who is trying not to let debt define them

Photo credit: Andrew Fergerson

If you watch 10-year-old Katelyn Rosell play with her big brother Jacob, you’d never guess what she’s been through. In her decade of life, she had 14 brain surgeries.

The trouble started ten days after she was born said her mother, Cheri Rosell. Katelyn started throwing up and not the normal, newborn spit up. Cheri had a feeling something was off and they took her to the hospital. The doctors told her it’s likely the flu, go home and bring your daughter to your primary doctor in the morning. By the time the family arrived at the doctor’s office the next day, Katelyn’s illness had progressed.

“When we got into the room, she started to throw up blood, she was really grey, they couldn’t find a pulse,” Cheri said.

The diagnosis: listeria, which lead to meningitis, pneumonia and then sepsis. The infections destroyed Katelyn’s hearing in her right ear, partially in her left. That’s enough worry and medical bills for any family, but unfortunately, it was just the beginning.

“Our daughter has hydrocephalies and a shunt that goes from the top part of her head and it travels all the way down under her skin, into her belly,” Cher said.

Hydrocephalies is commonly known as water on the brain and Cheri said it is related to all the scar tissue built up from Katelyn’s illnesses. Her shunt carries fluids away from her brain so her head doesn’t swell.

“Then she was also diagnosed with epilepsy,” Cheri said, “she was diagnosed with autism.” In 2012, when Katelyn was four-years-old, she had a stroke. Then she was diagnosed with precocious puberty, which the Mayo Clinic defines “when a child's body begins changing into that of an adult (puberty) too soon. Puberty includes rapid growth of bones and muscles, changes in body shape and size, and development of the body's ability to reproduce.”

Through all this, Katelyn still goes to school at the Michigan School for the Deaf. She loves to play basketball with her brother, and her teachers tell Cheri she is happy and a pleasure in the classroom.

“When you're in the middle of the diagnosis, it is the most difficult thing to deal with. They tell you your daughter has to have this hemispherectomy, it's going to be $200,000,” Cheri said, which is a surgery where they removed half of Katelyn’s brain. Cheri shows us a picture of Katelyn’s brain before the procedure. Her left side is bright and alive. The right side is completely dark. Cheri explained, that means it’s not working.

“That was the first thing that comes to mind, I know she needs it to stay alive but how are we going to pay for this?” Cher said.

That’s a question hundreds of people across our region are asking themselves. This isn’t the kind of debt we sign up for: it comes crashing down on you, with a life-altering diagnosis – even with insurance.

“I think we've paid overall, I think that I thought we were at about $25,000, you’re able to claim it on your taxes,” Cheri said, “we probably only have maybe $6,000 left.”

This is on top of everyday expenses for a family of four, plus the little things Katelyn needs to thrive: a wheel chair, braces for her arm and leg and maintenance surgeries for her shunt.

“A big thing is, a lot of people let it control their lives and they're not able to live outside of that and we started seeing that we needed to make memories and go on these trips and do things with the kids and not put the burden of medical bills on us all the time,” Cheri said.

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