Organ donor's mother stuck with $41,000 bill for work that saved five lives

November 25, 1993|By Tao Woolfe | Tao Woolfe,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Kathy Bass picks up the photo of her dead son and kisses it.

"It's hard, so hard, even now to talk about it," she says, wiping the lipstick from her son's image and setting the photo back into its candlelit niche on a coffee table in her home.

It's not just the sorrow. It's the anger that makes it hard. Ms. Bass tried to do the right thing as her son lay dying in a hospital, agreeing to a request that he be kept alive long enough to donate his organs.

Those organs saved five people around the country. But doctors and hospital bureaucrats didn't take the time to thank Ms. Bass for caring enough to help others in the darkest moment of her life.

Instead of thanks, they sent Ms. Bass a bill for $41,000, the cost of keeping her son alive so the organs could be removed.

There have been vague promises that a donor bank may eventually pay much of the $41,000 and that the hospital will re-examine the bill, but Ms. Bass has been given no guarantees -- and is now struggling because a lien has been placed on her son's estate while the mess gets sorted out.

"It's not fair. None of it is fair. If I slipped through the cracks, they should correct it. If this is standard operating procedure, the hospital should change it," Ms. Bass said.

"It's bad enough to be dealing with my son's death. I should not have to be dealing with this."

With tissue in hand, Ms. Bass, 47, a catering company employee from Sunrise, tells the story:

Jeffrey Bass, 21, was killed in a car accident Sept. 12 in Homestead, when a woman apparently ran a red light and rammed into the driver's side of his fiancee's Probe. Jeffrey had been driving to a barbecue with his fiancee, Ada Rodriguez, 23, of Homestead.

The accident happened at 2:30 p.m., and Jeffrey and Ada were taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami by paramedics. Ada was treated and released for minor injuries. Jeffrey was unconscious from massive head injuries.

When Jeffrey's mother reached the hospital about 7 p.m., a nurse told her Jeffrey was all but brain dead.

"There was a flicker of brain activity, the nurse said. And she said they were keeping him alive artificially," Ms. Bass says.

Ms. Bass says she didn't understand why they were keeping him alive. "I said no, no life support systems. Let him go."

It was then that the nurse asked whether she'd consider donating his organs.

"I knew it's what he would have wanted, so I agreed," Ms. Bass says.

She spent the following 19 hours waiting for the doctors to "harvest Jeffrey's organs" and tell her they had pulled the plug.

At 2 p.m. the following day, the nurses told her to go home. It was over.

That was on Monday. The wake was Thursday. The following Monday, she received a notice from Jackson Memorial that a lien had been put on her son's estate for $41,000.

Then the mail brought a bill for the same amount, detailing all the exotic procedures the hospital had gone through to keep Jeffrey alive.

"I couldn't believe it," Ms. Bass says, tears trickling down her face. "They kept him alive to harvest his organs and then sent me the bill for keeping him alive."

In October, Ms. Bass received a letter from the donor bank telling her that Jeffrey's organs -- his heart, kidneys, liver and pancreas -- had saved five lives.

According to Roberta Morgan, Ms. Bass' close friend and secretary to Ms. Bass' attorney, no one took the time to help Ms. Bass or explain what was going on with the $41,000 bill.

Ms. Morgan says they were told by hospital officials that the bill was supposed to have gone to the University of Miami's Division of Transplantation, the donor bank that took and distributed the organs.

"They never got the bill. We had to send it to them," Ms. Morgan says.

But Les Olson, director of organ procurement and preservation for the university, says the bank will probably only pick up 90 percent to 95 percent of the bill -- which could leave much unpaid.

Mr. Olson also says the bill is incorrect. The donor bank and the hospital are reviewing the bill now, he says.

Ms. Bass and Ms. Morgan say the donor bank didn't even tell them that much.

"They [the organ bank] told me they weren't committed to anything," Ms. Bass says. "They also told me that auditing the bill could take six months to a year. And, in the meantime, while the lien is pending on Jeffrey's estate, I can't pay for the funeral."

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