October 1, 2014 was a very ordinary day. My wife Carla made breakfast for our son Evan and it was my job to drop Evan off at school, on my way to work. Usually, Carla would walk us to the door to see us off but, on this morning, she complained about a headache and quickly went upstairs to rest. In retrospect, having a headache did not seem unusual, but it was unusual for her to turn around so abruptly and leave us before we reached the door.
I dropped Evan off, and I was about five minutes into my remaining 10-minute commute to work, when my cell phone rang. It was Carla. Calmly she said, “Steven, something’s not right, I need you to come home.” I told her okay and I hung up and turned around and headed home. Almost immediately, I became worried about the call and tried to call her back. I called the home phone several times and then tried her cell phone. There was no answer on either.
When I arrived at the house, Carla was conscious but incapacitated. It apparently happened only a few minutes after I spoke to her on the phone. She barely knew I was there, and she would not respond to anything that I said. She could not stand or walk. I had no idea what was happening, but I kept calm and quickly called 911, asking for an EMT. Within minutes, my wife was being taken 10 minutes away to Suburban Hospital.
Carla was a perfectly healthy individual, who hardly ever got sick or ever went to the doctor. The mother of our two children, she successfully ran her own furniture dealership for 15 years. Only two months before, at the age of 51, she competed in the New York City Triathlon. The picture of health, it was almost impossible to believe that something was wrong with her.
In the hospital emergency room, I immediately recognized that Carla was being tested for the symptoms of a stroke. While she wasn’t listening to the doctor’s commands, we could tell that her arm and leg, on one side of her body, could resist the doctors pushing and the other side could not. A half hour later, a CT Scan confirmed that a blood vessel, deep in Carla’s brain, was bleeding. She was having a hemorrhagic stroke.
Step one was to quickly relieve the pressure on her brain. Within about an hour, the doctors had sedated Carla and inserted a small tube into her head that would drain fluid and relieve pressure, so that her brain would not be damaged by the increased pressure of the internal bleed. She was also put on a respirator as her brain was so impaired by blood that she couldn’t breathe on her own. She was kept sedated for several days until the bleeding thankfully stopped.
That first night she was in the hospital, I had a chance to reflect on a day that would surely change my family’s world.
"Carla was stable but her recovery was completely uncertain. As I was by her bedside, my 35-year career professional mind clicked on and I reflected on my family’s insurance planning.”
Did I protect my family as I had counseled hundreds of people on how to protect their own families over the years? Virtually everything that I had practiced, the risks that I had protected my clients from, had now become a reality. I went down the list of insurance risks: major medical insurance, disability insurance, life insurance, and long-term care coverage, everything that I had put in place. And the answer was yes. I had taken care of everything.
Even on that first day, I understood that the certainties were 1) Carla would have an awful lot of medical bills, and 2) she would almost certainly be disabled, probably for a very long time.
Within a couple of days, and once she was able to breathe on her own, Carla was awakened from her sedation. We were told that the blood would remain in her brain for at least two months and that her brain would slowly and naturally cleanse out the blood, hopefully allowing her to slowly get well. It was during this time that she had to learn to eat, read, write, and walk and talk again, all the while suffering from debilitating headaches that are common with stroke patients. She had physical, occupational, and speech therapists who helped her try to recover all that she was. In her recovery, she amazed her therapists.
In the first week after her stroke, Carla’s doctors had found the cause, a very rare disease with less than 200 cases each year. Carla was stricken by Moyamoya Disease, which is a blockage of her carotid arteries deep within her brain. She was affected on both sides of her brain, 90% blocked on one side and 75% blocked on the other. The blocked arteries cause the brain to compensate by growing small blood vessels, which are a signature of the disease. These small blood vessels can easily rupture and bleed, which is exactly what happened to Carla.
The epicenter of Moyamoya disease treatment is the Stanford Medical Center and a single doctor who performs a unique surgery called Direct Cranial Bypass Surgery. The surgery, which would dramatically reduce the potential for future bleeding in her brain, involves taking a blood vessel from her scalp and rerouting it through her skull and connecting it directly to blood vessels in her brain. Carla had two surgeries, on each side of her brain, one week apart, early in 2015. The surgeries were done by an amazing surgeon who pioneered the direct bypass technique, Dr. Gary Steinberg, in Palo Alto, California. Following Carla’s surgery, the blood flow to Carla’s brain amazingly comes from the top of her head down. Dr. Steinberg examined Carla this year, five years after the fact, and her blood flow is great. We are hopeful that she will never have to suffer another stroke for the rest of her lifetime.
Carla’s recovery from her stroke and her subsequent surgeries took the better part of a year. During this time, she had to close the doors of her company as she was unable to work, and she was the person primarily responsible for all the company sales and management. What she was able to retain was the tax-free monthly income payable from her individual disability insurance, which I had sold her back when she first started her business.
Today, Carla is back working and, as she still battles some of the minor effects of her stroke and surgeries, her disability benefits will remain in place until her income nears her pre-disability income level. Her disability benefits have dramatically helped with Carla’s recovery and her dignity and financially helped our family.
The lessons from Carla’s story are many. Strokes frequently happen in the morning. Stroke victims frequently “self-rescue” themselves by telling or calling someone they are close to, usually a family member or business associate. Stroke patients are frequently told that, whatever abilities they recover in the first six months are likely all that they will ever recover. In many cases, this is simply not true, especially for Carla. Also, strokes sometimes result in small miracles like a last-minute call to a husband, getting to the hospital in less than 30 minutes, and a bleed in the brain that is not too big and miraculously does not do any brain damage.
The final lesson I hope you take away from our story is this: if your insurance agent tells you to buy as much disability insurance as you can afford because the chance of a disability that will last six months or longer is six times greater than someone dying, he or she is making a very sound recommendation.
There’s so much more to employee benefits than policies and premiums. A great benefits broker will make sure you, your employees, and your business are protected. Is your agent looking out for you?
Photo by belchonock