WARNING: Some of the video is graphic and may not be suitable for all viewers. 9 News felt without the graphic images, we couldn't convey the desperation this Tri-State family is feeling.
HAMILTON, Ohio - A Cincinnati hospital sent Linda Conrad home with a huge, gaping hole that splayed open her stomach seven inches long. It's what Medicaid said to do.
The wound requires sterile medical care. Twice a day someone has to reach inside Linda to remove a package of bloody gauze the size of a large fist, then re-apply a new clean bundle of gauze soaked in a special solution to prevent infection. A pad with Velcro wraps around her midsection the rest of the time, literally holding her stomach together.
You would think a nurse or trained medical technician would do this work. Instead her husband, a warehouse forklift operator by trade, has to care for her himself in the bed they've shared for 42 years.
At least he might have been done with it in four to six weeks, if Linda had been prescribed a special medical device called a "wound vac." The wound vac continuously applies pressure to remove infection and draw the wound edges together to speed the healing. Without it, Linda's body will take up to six months to close the wound on its own.
Linda says her health care professionals told her Medicaid would pay for a wound vac and a trained medical caregiver to change her gauze twice a day -- if she would enter a nursing home. However, after a month, she'd begin to forfeit her social security check to the home. The Conrads depend on both their checks as their sole support and loss of her share would have forced them to lose their subsidized apartment in a neatly kept duplex in Hamilton. She would have received the care, but they would be out on the street.
So they chose to come home as Roger Conrad asked the question many Americans wonder as they negotiate the rules of their insurers: "If they'll pay for it there (at a care facility), why won't they pay it here?"
It's all about the rules. Various insurers, Medicaid included, pay for services at different levels depending on where you are treated, who is treating you and other factors.
Roger and Linda Conrad worked hard their whole lives, honest blue-collar work that came with insurance. Now, both are disabled and dependent on a combined $1,779 monthly in social security benefits. There is no pension or any other income, so they qualify for Medicaid. They say since this change, they've noticed their level of care has eroded dramatically. Only some doctors will see them. They perceive a delay in care and fewer treatment options.
Linda started throwing up regularly two years ago. A diagnosis found 90 percent of her stomach had been sucked up into her esophagus. An initial surgery in July 2010 failed to fix the problem. So did a second surgery in March 2011 and a follow-up procedure. The Conrads lost faith in their initial general surgeon but it took a year to find a specialist who would operate again. That surgery in March 2012 proved to be a success. Linda stopped throwing up daily.
Then the skin surrounding the staples at the incision got infected.
"It started splitting open little by little, staples coming apart," said Roger. "I could feel the heat; it's infected. There's infection… I was afraid because if that would get in her blood system, it could kill her."
He begged for another surgery as the infection spread. Linda was in pain. Her stomach expanded to a huge ball. Five weeks after the surgery, the doctor agreed to operate again. The surgery removed the infection, along with the skin and tissue that usually seals the stomach. Instead, a gaping hole would take time to heal and close.
That's when the Conrads were presented with the dilemma they face today. While the hospital where Linda had the operation says Medicaid pays for in-home health care, they say medical professionals did not present that as an option. We contacted the office of the doctor who cared for her and left messages, but never heard back.
The Conrads say they were clear about the options presented: either enter a nursing home type facility and possibly lose their home or have Roger take care of Linda himself, without the speedier healing that a wound vac would have provided.
Forklift Operator Turned "Nurse"
So Roger Conrad began a daily routine most former warehouse workers would never envision.
"They gave me one lesson on how to put gauze inside the stomach of my wife of 42 years. Gauze! And stuff it inside holes in her stomach," said Roger.
We watched as he prepared the solution on their dining table, now converted to a medical counter full of supplies and medicines that cost hundreds of dollars a month. They've had to cut back on the pain medication because they say they can't afford the full dosage.
Roger slipped on sterile gloves, dipped a roll of gauze into a solution to prevent infection, then carried it in a tin container to the bedroom, where Linda waited, wincing in pain. He slipped his
hand inside the deep hole in her stomach and pulled out the old gauze, tied it in a plastic bag, and then inserted the new gauze.
"Relax, hon. Take a deep breath," he said, as Linda contorted in pain.
"I'm trying," she said.
"That a girl. Deep breath," he answered back, his hands working scissors to remove a thread of gauze that had caught onto a stitch inside Linda's body cavity.
Active-Duty Son Reacts
"I was really shocked and appalled at the way she was sent home," said the Conrads' son, Roger Conrad. He's a senior chief officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, currently deployed in Texas, flying all over the world for 20 years as a first responder for various disasters. He says he's seen a lot in those years but this still took his breath.
"My jaw dropped. It sucked the life right out of me to see my mother in such pain," he said. "I'm out defending the homeland and trying to keep America safe, and meanwhile my mother's suffered more than anyone I know right now."
The younger Roger brought his army cot and sat by his mother's side as she recovered from her March operation but he couldn't get leave again for this surgery, much less a recovery that might take half a year.
"It's kind of a tragedy. Due to her poor medical coverage it seems she didn't get top-notch treatment," he said.
Back in Hamilton, his mother and father play out their four-decade long love story in a whole new way, each more worried about the other than him or herself.
"I try my best not to show her what I was feeling inside while I'm doing it," Roger said out of Linda's earshot. "She cries because she's so afraid."
Linda sounded a similar theme as she recovered after her husband's latest treatment.
"I try not to let him know how much pain I'm in most of the time," she said. "So I just grin and bear it, take it, you know."
But she doesn't think their experience makes sense in America today.
"I don't think this is the way people should live. I really don't. It's not right. Something's wrong somewhere," Linda said.
"This is the United States of America," Roger said. "It's all messed up the way they got it set up. I need help. I want to make sure she's going to be all right, that I'm doing the right thing, that I'm not missing anything. I want her to have good care like you would want your mother to have."
Many have offered to help the Conrads. To read about the assistance headed their way, visit http://www.wcpo.com/dpp/news/local_news/investigations/i-team-couple-gets-help-from-medical-catastrophe .
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38-time Emmy winner Brendan Keefe was named Best Reporter by the Ohio Associated Press in 2011, and Best Photographer in 2012 and 2013. He serves as Anchor and Chief Investigator for 9 On Your Side.
Jason Law joined 9 On Your Side in January 2013 as a investigative reporter with the I-Team.