Living in hope, waiting to heal

Crash victim optimistic despite money worries

August 20, 2008|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,Sun reporter

Raymundo Martinez just wanted a new watch. His plan was to pick one out at Wal-Mart, then ride his bike home to change for a gathering with other summer exchange students. He got the watch, but never made it to the party.

Martinez, an architecture student from the Dominican Republic, was biking along eastbound U.S. 50 outside Ocean City when he was struck by a taxicab, suffering catastrophic injuries. His skull and facial bones were so badly damaged that one doctor said they were like a bowl of crushed ice. His left eye had burst and his lungs were punctured. He had fractures in his spine, ribs and leg. His mother, who flew in from Spain, fainted when she saw him.

That was one long year ago; a long year of painful recovery.

Now 23, Martinez wants to return to Santo Domingo. He can't leave, though, because he needs additional surgery and doesn't believe he can get proper treatment at home. But he might not be able to get it in this country either, without a financial windfall and approval of his medical visa. He has been stranded - far from his family, his girlfriend and his university - hoping to be made whole again.

"In my mind, I have to wait and to see what the doctor says," said Martinez, who has been living at the Baltimore Ronald McDonald House, a nonprofit residence for young patients. "If it's economically possible to do the next operation, I will do it. If not, I'll go back home."

The uncertainty angers the Rev. Robert Wojtek, a Baltimore priest who met Martinez while praying at his bedside. "Somebody comes here in a healthy state with their whole life ahead of them in a very good program and is contributing to life here," he said. "To send him back and say, 'This is how they treat you in America' - it's just not right."

Martinez has health insurance coverage through the exchange program, but he hit the policy's $250,000 cap in nine days at Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. The cab company carried only $20,000 of liability insurance, the legal minimum that Ocean City requires, said Bruce Bright, a lawyer representing Martinez. Its insurer, the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund, has yet to determine who was responsible and whether it will pay at all. A fund spokesman said it does not comment on specific cases.

A police report indicates that Martinez was on the road illegally but doesn't elaborate. Road construction was under way near the intersection where he was struck. Bright faults the cab driver. The owner of the company, Century Taxi, declined to comment, citing potential litigation.

Even if the claim is paid, Martinez' bills already amount to far more than $20,000.

"The thing that is more shocking than that [$20,000] is the minimum, is that it's the minimum for taxicabs," Bright said. "They are on the road more than any other driver."

His client is in a very difficult position, he said. "It's been quite a plight."

It had been Martinez' second summer in Maryland.

In school he was always studying, Martinez said, so he saw the summers as a time to build relationships and make money. The exchange program, the Council for Educational Travel, USA, secures work visas and housing for students from around the world and connects them to jobs. He was living with roommates from Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Turkey, and was working in three places: a city parking lot, a pool and a restaurant.

They loved him at Assateague Crab House, where he was often stationed at the grill. The owner's 85-year-old mother-in-law rules the kitchen and is difficult to please, as employees quickly learn, but she immediately took to him. "He's that type of kid," said John Van Fossen, who corresponded with Martinez after the first season, then jumped at the chance to have him back.

Martinez always reported on time to work, but he did not show up on July 29, 2007. With a sick feeling, Van Fossen set out looking for his employee, eventually tracking him down at the Baltimore hospital.That was where Anne Marie Conestabile, the regional manager for the exchange program, found him.

She thought he looked like a linebacker. A slender man, Martinez had swelled to five times his normal size. He was enmeshed in a web of tubes and bandages and had brain fluid dripping from his nose. "It was the most heartbreaking feeling to see him in the condition he was in," she said.

Bit by bit, doctors starting piecing him together. They reconstructed his face, using 26 titanium plates and more than 100 screws. They rebuilt his jaw, his collapsed nose and his cheekbones and repaired the fractured skull, soft tissue and lacerations. They put a nearly 2-foot rod in his leg.

He spent a month in various hospitals and has had more than a half-dozen surgeries. Doctors would still like to operate further on his jaw, nose, face, and possibly his eye and leg, so he will look more like himself and can more easily breathe, chew and run.

"He's held together by so many things in so many places, you almost think he should have a bubble around him," Wojtek said.

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