In an era of medical miracles, a heart patient waits for one

THIS JUST IN ...

March 20, 1996|By DAN RODRICKS

Here's what I see from Al Montgomery's hospital bedside: a 37-year-old mechanic, a fixer of machines, now dependent on a machine for his very life.

I see a husband and a wife living not only with the emotional stress that comes with the wait for a heart transplant, but with the multiple realities of American life loss of a job, loss of income, uncertainty about medical insurance.

And I see the paradox of the modern medical miracle its power to extend a man's life, its potential to leave him financially devastated.

Some background:

Al Montgomery first learned he would need a new heart about three years ago. He went to a doctor with what he thought were flu symptoms; the doctor told him he was lucky to be alive. Some day, Al Montgomery was told, he would be confined to a hospital bed and hooked up to a pump until doctors could find a replacement for his failing heart.

But he kept working his regular job sometimes seven days a week at Domino Sugar. He was a mechanic.

"I repaired machinery in the refinery," he says from his hospital bed, as the machine that keeps blood pumping through his body ticks away. "The doctor told me right from the beginning I was going to have to have a heart transplant. But I kept working. Taking medication and working."

He had to stop in December. The next month, doctors installed the experimental pump that keeps him alive. Montgomery has been in intensive care at Johns Hopkins ever since, and in surgery three times. As of yesterday, he was still waiting for news of a donor.

His wife, Jean, stands by his bed each day. She appears as you might expect sullen and worried, drained by sleeplessness. There are reasons for that, and they go beyond her husband's health problems.

Three years ago, Jean Montgomery was laid off ("downsized") from her job at Westinghouse. She then found work with a food company in Jessup. But that job goes this month. (The food company was acquired by an Irish concern, which, of course, immediately announced layoffs here.)

The Montgomerys sold the "house of our dreams" in Anne Arundel County and moved into a smaller, two-bedroom townhouse. "We had to do our own downsizing," Al says. "We tried to get our mortgage down as small as possible. We sold it because we knew this [the transplant] was coming. I sold my new truck, too. I also have a '53 Chevy farm truck for sale, if you know anyone who wants it."

Medical insurance? There's good news and bad news. The costly transplant was preapproved through Al's health plan at Domino. But that insurance will expire in a few weeks, leaving the couple to face a $490 monthly premium for continued coverage. Down the road, Al will need medication to keep his body from rejecting his new heart, and he's been told that can cost from $10,000 to $20,000 per year.

"It's going to be tough for us for a while," says Jean Montgomery. "I've worked for 30 years and never asked for anything, never asked for charity."

Friends didn't wait for the Montgomerys to ask. Fifty-five of Al Montgomery's co-workers, many of them members of the United Food and Commercial Workers, each pledged $5 of their weekly pay to a fund set up in Al's name at the Provident Bank branch on Fort Avenue in Locust Point. So they've cobbled together an "insurance plan" to get Al Montgomery through a prolonged period when he can't work and his wife is unemployed.

Before I leave Al's bedside, I say what's easy for me to say: "Keep your hopes up. You'll make it." And just as those words ring empty, a healthy-looking, middle-aged woman in a handsome jacket walks into the room and delivers some hope. She introduces herself as Pat Burnside, successful heart transplant, April 1995. She drove in from Baltimore County to give Al and his wife a boost. And she did. Then she's off to sign up for a summer tennis league, living proof that transplants work.

Lexington Terrace reunion

City officials have marked July 20 as the date of destruction of Lexington Terrace. Bobbi McKinney, who has lived in the public high-rise for 36 years, has marked March 29 for the farewell party, though she's calling it a reunion. Anyone who ever lived in the place is invited. The party runs from 8 p.m. until 2 a.m. at Curley's Harbor City Hall, 9 N. Fremont Ave. For ticket information, call 783-5919. McKinney says only 37 tenants are left in her building, the 755 building. "And they want us all out by April 29."

This spud's for you

At the Rotunda Giant, a woman approached a busy clerk as he replenished the stock of potatoes from a spud-filled cart. The woman seemed tentative, even timid.

"Is it OK for me to take potatoes from the cart instead of the bin?" she asked.

"Go ahead," said the clerk, "but I'll have to call the Produce Police."

Toy story

TJI reader Fran Kleeman gave her niece a toy for her birthday. "But," says Fran, "I had to return it to the store [which shall remain nameless to protect its reputation] when I found out she already had one." On the credit slip, the store clerk gave "duplicity" as the reason for the return. Says Fran: "I'm considering suing for defamation of character."

95 and counting

A special birthday today. She's the queen of Baltimore waitresses, still working the front tables at the Woman's Industrial Exchange, 95 years young, ladies and gentlemen, let's give it up for Miss Marguerite Schertle!

Pub Date: 3/20/96

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