It’s hard to imagine being hospitalized with over $2 Million in expected medical bills and no insurance. That was our situation, August 4, 1982. Burned children with no insurance, is a trauma center’s worst nightmare. Like most 8 year olds, I was completely unaware my dad’s employer no longer offered insurance on dependents or that we had not secured a replacement insurance policy. My friend Jeff who was burned with me, only 7 years old, was in a similar predicament. Like so many families struggling to make ends meet, our situation was not uncommon in our neighborhood. We were your typical hard working, blue collar family who lived pay check to pay check, with my dad working 70-80 hr weeks just to pay the bills. In addition to the overwhelming financial burden of pending medical bills, our parents were also struggling to come to terms with the harsh reality that their precious children just suffered a severe trauma that would require a lifetime of treatments and healing. I still remember my mom recounting how she truly believed they would just bandage me up and send us on our way, completely naïve to the severity of our injury.
The first week we were hospitalized at Grady Memorial Hospital, Atlanta’s public safety net hospital. They have the distinction of getting all the cases other hospitals don’t want to touch… i.e. burn trauma patients, much less uninsured burn trauma patients. Our financial responsibility totaled $8,000 for the first week, about $7,999 more than we had in savings. Luckily my grandparents loaned us the money to cover the expenses for the 1st week but we still had no idea of how the cover the upcoming $2 Million. Through multiple media outlets, the Yaarab Shriners in Atlanta learned of our situation and approached us with a lifesaving offer… transfer Jeff and I to their world renowned pediatric burn center at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati, Ohio. Furthermore, guaranteeing our recovery.
Their commitment included the treatment of our burn injuries until we reached the age of 21, inclusive of all reconstructive surgeries, rehabilitation therapy and temporary relocation housing for my mother, with no expense to us whatsoever. Talk about a miracle. How could we ever repay their generosity? Until then, we had always seen the Shriners at street corners fundraising or at parades driving around in their funny little go-carts with no comprehension of the impact they had made on the lives of millions of kids. I still remember like it was yesterday my first plane ride being on a private jet the Shriners arranged to transport me from Grady to their hospital in Cincinnati (unfortunately I didn’t get to see much of the view since I was strapped to a gurney but it was still pretty cool in the eyes of an 8 year old). Like our guardian angels, they worked behind the scenes with no need for public adoration. My parents and I are convinced they were the serving hands of God in the flesh.
Hope and a future
Outside of their medical generosity, they provided the greatest healing treatment of all – HOPE. They assured us life would go on and I would resume life, although different and more challenging than most 8 year olds. They administered tough love daily but in proper doses. They made us aware that my scars would not go away; that I would have to adjust and adapt to the “new me.” Secretly I hoped they were wrong and my scars would just magically disappear one day, but their advisements came to fruition.
One obstacle, though small in comparison in the grand scheme of things, was the task of staying on track with my 3rd grade peers. I missed the first 6 weeks of the 3rd grade and was physically unable to use my right hand, my writing hand, which seemed to be an insurmountable challenge. The Shriners immediately worked with me to use my left arm instead, teaching me how to feed myself, brush my teeth, throw a ball and even write left handed. Surprisingly, with the help of a tutor provided by the hospital and my school assignments hand delivered weekly by my dad commuting from Atlanta, I was able to stay on track with my 3rd grade peers and maintained my straight “A” record – handwriting was a little off but they cut me some slack.
What most don’t realize is my medical treatment didn’t end when I was discharged from the hospital after 10 weeks. Due to the severe thickening and contracture of my scars, I was fitted with custom compression suits that went from my ankles to my neck to my wrists. I wore the compression suits 22hrs a day for 3 years, only taking them off to shower. I had 3 of these suits and was refitted every 3 months as the suits lost their compression with the extensive use. In addition, I was also fitted with custom orthotic braces on my chest, neck and face. Like the compression suits, these braces applied pressure to my burns to minimize scarring and increase my range of motion. I was told the braces were $500 a piece and the suits $150 a piece (in 1982 dollars mind you) and paid 100% by the Shriners. The evolution, sometimes worsening nature of my scars, required me to see their surgeons every month for the 1st 6 months, every 3 months for 2 years, and then every 6 months for the next 5 years.
From 1982 to 1995, the Shriners covered 100% of all 30 of my surgeries, never asking us for a penny or my current health insurance provider. We are forever indebted to them and proudly donate every time we see them standing at an intersection with their buckets wearing their funny little Fez hats. One of the greatest affirmations of the miracles of the Shriners work was when I was selected to compete in the Ironman World Championships in 2012 and featured during the televised NBC broadcast. Who in 1982 would have believed 30 years later I’d be racing in the World’s toughest one day endurance event, Kona, Ironman World Championships. The Shriners were instrumental in giving us HOPE and teaching me getting burned was no excuse for not being successful in life. Thank you Shriners for all you do!
Shay is an All American and World ranked triathlete, burn survivor with scars over 65% of his body and is a sought out national motivational speaker. Despite being told he’d never compete in sports again at the age of 8, Shay is living testament to “Anything is Possible”: 4x Ironman, 4x member of Team USA, ranked top 1% of Ironmen worldwide and has competed in 9 triathlon world championships, including the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. His mantra has always been to not merely be a “finisher” but to be a “competitor.” If you enjoyed this article, I encourage you to check out my other posts.