A couple's love endures despite the government

DAN RODRICKS

October 24, 1992|By DAN RODRICKS

When he first saw her in the crowd at a 1981 Charlie Daniels concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion, Rob Troutman wondered aloud: "What's a beautiful girl like that doing in a wheelchair?"

He found out a few days later. By coincidence, he met Doreen Leitch through a friend in Randallstown. Doreen had muscular dystrophy; it had been diagnosed when she was 7. She had started using the wheelchair in 1979, when she was 23.

Rob thought she was smart, strong and remarkably independent, but full of anger that she would never walk again. "I didn't see the wheelchair," he recalls. "I saw through it. I saw a person, and I loved that person. A lot of people might not be able to do that, but I did. We got married." The wedding was in May 1983. Doreen sat on a stool to take her vows.

Nine and a half years later, Doreen Troutman cannot move. The MD has made her a quadriplegic. She breathes with the assistance of a machine, which stands by her recliner in the living room of the Troutman home on Chapman Road in Randallstown.

Her respiratory condition started to deteriorate about five years ago. Rob became even more devoted. He bathed his wife, dressed her, fed her, gave her medication, carried her to the bathroom and back to her chair, connected her to the machine, then went off to his job as a foreman and finisher for a concrete company.

One day last March, Rob was working on a foundation job at a construction site near his home. He slipped from a ladder and fell 4 feet into wet concrete. He injured his back; the official diagnosis was a herniated disc. For a time, he could barely walk. He could no longer work in construction. He could no longer lift his wife.

Rob needed surgery, and there was no one else around to help Doreen through the daily routine of bed to bath to chair. She needed -- still needs -- at least two daily visits from a home health-care worker, probably for the rest of her life.

Except the Troutmans live in a country where a lot of people, sometimes those who need help the most, get lost in the cracks of the health-delivery system.

The Troutmans couldn't afford home care for Doreen.

TC They paid -- still pay -- $39 a week for health insurance, but their health insurance plan wouldn't cover it.

The government wasn't much help, either.

Before Rob had his injury, he was bringing home $318.49 a week. His workmen's compensation is now $289 a week and, according to the rules, that's too much income for the Troutmans to qualify for regular medical assistance from the state or federal governments.

"Do you know what it's like, do you know how degrading it is, to have your husband's friend come over at 3 o'clock in the morning because you have to go to the bathroom? A guy you've only met two or three times?" Doreen asks. "I was in tears. Do you have any idea?"

Of course, I don't. I'm only stepping into this story now, long after Doreen and Rob, with the help of Sharette Kern, a clinical social worker, started appealing to the bureaucracies for help. Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security all denied benefits. Doreen received a one-time grant of $700 through the state Developmental Disabilities Administration to pay two friends for two months of daily visits. Since then, those friends have been coming over, when possible, to help Doreen from bed to bath to chair.

There have been other hassles. Doreen's ventilator broke down in August and it needed a $865 repair. When Doreen called for help, she was told her insurance company, which had purchased the machine, would not pay for its repair. Doreen borrowed $150 from a neighbor and a Baltimore County social worker came through with a $300 emergency grant to get the ventilator fixed.

Rob had surgery in July and goes for therapy three days a week. He wears a back brace and is under the doctor's orders not to lift anything over 25 pounds. Most of the time now, Doreen stays in her recliner day and night because she still doesn't have regular home health care.

"These are people who, despite Doreen's health problems, have not been a drain on the system all these years, and when they really need help, they are denied a resolution of their problems," says Ms. Kern. "If they didn't own their house, and had a mortgage to pay, I don't know how they'd make it."

"My brother, when he lived here, took care of me," Doreen says over the sound of her ventilator. "My grandparents -- this was their house -- they took care of me. Rob took care of me. Now I need help. I'm a 35-year-old woman who just wants to live as normally as I can, and the stupid government is screwing me out of it."

If government can't help people like Doreen and Rob Troutman, what's government for?

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