BY ANNE STANTON
GRAWN — In late November, Josh Drake met with his bosses over a breakfast of hash browns and sausage. It was then he learned he was getting laid off for the winter.
He expected the news. He’d worked at the same Suttons Bay cherry orchard for years and the layoff was as regular as the deep winter snow.
The real shock came a few hours later when he landed in Munson Medical Center’s emergency room.
“It kind of felt like I was drowning. Every breath was a struggle,” he said.
Doctors withdrew 50 gallons of fluid, and, over the next 10 days, discovered a cascade of health problems, including a viral infection, hypertension, and a rare and very serious heart condition that had lurked in his body since birth.
“I came as close to having a heart attack as you can without having one,” he said.
Drake, 32, has since left the hospital and is feeling better. But now he faces serious financial hurdles. He was ordered to refrain from working for at least six months, and he has no insurance to pay for his medical expenses.
“It’s partially my fault for not having insurance. I should have,” he said. “But it was one of those things. I thought I could go without it because I was healthy, and I didn’t have the money to spend on it. Did I want health insurance or a place to live and food to eat?”
Drake was interviewed in his small apartment that’s tacked onto the back of a Blair Township garage, where he lives with his girlfriend, Maggie Scholtus, who holds a part-time, retail job.
Josh hadn’t seen a doctor in years because he never fell ill and didn’t have insurance. Now he’ll have to drain his $10,000 retirement account in order to apply for Medicaid and disability. If he does qualify, he won’t receive his first disability payment until six months after he’s approved. He can’t collect unemployment benefits because he’s not ready or able to work.
“So for six months, I’m not supposed to eat or live in a snowbank?” Josh said. “What am I supposed to do? I don’t have a source of income. I don’t have real estate.”
But Josh does have family and friends, said Melissa Drake, his sister.
She organized a spaghetti dinner fundraiser at the Masonic Lodge in Greilickville on Dec. 28 from 4 to 7 p.m. Folks are asked to donate what they can.
She said she called Glenn LaCross of the Leelanau Fruit Company to supply pies and he immediately volunteered to donate them.
“I almost dropped the phone,” Melissa said. “I told him, ‘We’re expecting 500 people!’ We’re getting a lot of donations for the silent auction. The response has just been amazing. I knew this area was really good about helping people out, but you have to have it happen to yourself before you realize how much people want to help out. It changes you. I know it changed Josh and it changed my family. Changed Maggie.”
Josh broke down in tears as his sister spoke. Melissa explained her brother worked hard his entire life, beginning as a young boy when he pitched in with the family orchard.
“The biggest thing is he’s always made his own money and to depend on the state or me or his family, it’s a bit of of an embarrassment,” she said.
Josh said he noticed problems a few days before he was hospitalized. He was lifting big, heavy rocks at the cherry orchard, and felt sick, like he had pneumonia. He couldn’t shake the feeling.
“I was easily winded, even walking to the fridge,” he said.
Josh learned his symptoms were caused from a congenital defect called cardiomyopathy noncompaction.
“It means my heart skipped a step when my heart was developing. So there is a part of my heart that doesn’t pump quite right. It’s a form of heart failure,” he said.
Scholtus ticked off his other problems: a clot in the left atrium, hypertension, tachycardia, and arrhythmia, which medication has brought under control.
Melissa estimates the hospital bill could exceed $200,000, but as yet they haven’t received any bills.
Karen Popa, patient financial services director for Munson Medical Center, said the hospital helps patients like Josh apply for Medicaid and disability benefits.
But Medicaid covers only about half of the hospital’s costs. Patients still must pay Medicaid’s co-pays and deductibles, but not the balance of the bill owed to Munson, she said.
Josh’s case comes as the country remains in a contentious debate over the Affordable Care Act’s requirement to buy health insurance. Josh himself doesn’t agree with it.
“It goes beyond insurance,” he said. “I think it comes down to to constitutional rights. They are infringing on people’s rights, forcing them to do certain things against their will. It’s a slippery slope.”
Josh said he’ll focus on doing everything he can to get back to work, including cutting out sodium-laden processed foods.
“The cardiologist said there’s a 10 percent chance I could vastly improve, and I’ve made up my mind I’m going to be one of those 10 percent,” he said.