Sunday, August 06, 2000

KENDRICK: Care cost a big obstacle for quadriplegic woman

        April 15 is remembered as income tax day for most of us. For Heather Sturgill, the date has a new significance.

        A hair stylist for Total Eclipse in Mount Lookout, Heather Sturgill was driving her husband's pickup truck to work that Saturday morning. She wasn't going fast on Observatory Avenue; neither was the woman who ran the stop sign at Grace Avenue and Observatory and hit the passenger side of the Sturgill truck.

  • A “giant yard sale” to help pay for Heather Sturgill's ramp will be 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, m. at North Presbyterian Church, 4222 Hamilton Ave., Northside.
  • Hair cutathon all day Sept. 9 at Total Eclipse, 1038 Delta Ave., Mount Lookout Square. Proceeds from all haircuts will benefit Mrs. Sturgill. 321-1171.
  • For more information on personal care assistance programs, call Independent Living Options, 241-2600.
        Mrs. Sturgill, 28, remembers lying on the driver's seat, looking at her hands and realizing she couldn't feel them. After 10 hours in surgery and 10 days in the intensive care unit at University Hospital, she learned the reason: the accident had broken her neck.

        In an instant, an active young woman had become quadriplegic. She has movement in her arms, but none in her hands. So far, feeling (but no movement) has returned to her thumbs.

        Donna Ravenscraft, a close friend of Heather Sturgill, wrote to ask me how an individual who “does not have the financial resources of someone like Christopher Reeve” pays for such vital pieces of recovery as occupational therapy, rehabilitation, a ramp, a van, a wheelchair?

        Good questions all, and none easy to answer.

        The HMO provided through University Hospital, where Gerald Sturgill is employed in the clinical engineering department maintaining dialysis and other machinery, is not atypical. Personal care, homemaking assistance, and no more than 30 occupational therapy visits are deemed worthy of coverage by the Sturgills' plan. This, as Donna Ravenscraft so aptly observes, “for someone who just learned to scratch her nose last week.”

        Without a motorized wheelchair, Heather Sturgill cannot move within her own home. Without a ramp, she can only be carried down her Northside porch steps like a package. Without a lift-equipped van, she must be placed, somewhat unsafely, in a seat belt and shoulder harness for travel.

        Her many friends are planning fund-raisers to help defray expenses — a yard sale, a Mardi Gras event, a hair “Cutathon” sponsored by her former employer.

        These efforts can help pay for the nuts and bolts equipment of independence, but there is an ongoing need for personal care. Personal care assistants charge from $10 to $18 an hour, and a person who is quadriplegic may need 35-40 hours weekly assistance with bathing, dressing, managing a home.

        Suzanne Hopkins, personal assistance services coordinator for Independent Living Options, says there are a variety of systems that can help, but none are easy. The Medicaid Waiver program, for instance, will pay for personal assistance, home care, skilled nursing, etc., as long as individuals meet a complicated set of financial requirements.

        The Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission's Personal Care Assistance Program provides financial assistance for up to 35 hours a week, but gives first priority to people with jobs and second priority to those actively seeking employment.

        Heather Sturgill has a wonderful attitude. She is working hard every day to regain as much function as possible. She adores her husband of eight years, saying he is the best man in the world for her and is already planning ahead to work she will do when her life is stabilized. (Her dream is to establish a nonprofit organization that promotes awareness of all religions to create better understanding and connections between faiths.)

        For now, her husband and a network of friends are shouldering the responsibility of her daily care, but she knows that can't go on.

        “It's always a strain on a relationship,” agrees Mrs. Hopkins, who speaks from both professional and personal experience, sometimes needing to depend upon her own husband for personal care.

        Heather Sturgill is lucky in many ways. She has a husband and friends who love her. She has faith in herself and a will to survive. After only three short months, she has already figured out what some take years to learn: that true independence for people with disabilities lies in managing and controlling whatever assistance and adaptations your personal circumstance requires.

        Still, the path costs money. Her 30 occupational therapy sessions will soon be used up. Without relief, her husband and friends will burn out. Her experience, in other words, is a poignant reminder of two things: Anyone can become disabled in an instant; and we, as a society, need to devise better ways of paying for the personal assistance some of us need.

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202.


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