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Struggling in grip of health crisis


Palmyra family about out of financial options


January 23, 2008
Jim and Janet Gilbrech and their two young children — Jessica Lynn, 6, and James Billy Ray, 5 — don't know where to turn next. They've struggled to make ends meet — or at least to keep them as close as they can — and they're about out of options.

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Jim Gilbrech's health problems have left him and his family close to financial ruin. Gilbrech, who has a gastronomy tube and suffers from osteoporosis, no longer can drive a semi tractor-trailer for a living. His wife, Janet, shown holding their 5-year-old son, James Billy Ray, also is unable to work, as she must stay home to take care of her husband. The couple also has a daughter, Jessica Lynn, who is not pictured. (Photo by Chris Adams)
Just a few short years ago, the family was doing about as well as anyone could hope: Jim drove his own semi tractor-trailer, Janet gave up her job to raise their children, and the family began renting a nice home in Palmyra. Their only real problems centered around Jim's health.

Now, Jim, 43, can no longer drive his truck, let alone stay by himself, Janet is spending her days caring for her husband, and the family is trying its best to stay in its home. Looking back, what they thought were problems were minor compared to what they're now facing.

Those problems began when Jim, a diabetic upwards of 300 pounds who also had liver problems, opted for gastric bypass surgery in early 2005 in an effort to get his weight under control and be able to live a healthier life not only for himself, but his wife and children.

Jim lost the excess weight, but his health didn't improve. In fact, it's gotten worse, as he has had more than 30 procedures and can't be left alone.

The gastric bypass surgery left Jim's stomach no longer able to contract during digestion, so the food just lays in his system, causing him to vomit and choke. Consequently, Jim dropped too much weight, getting down to about 130 pounds, and became malnourished, which caused him to develop osteoporosis.

Fearful of her husband "going to sleep and not waking up," Janet took him to a second doctor last August.

"We searched for doctors to try to help him, which is difficult with the medical coverage he has," she said, noting Jim, because of his diabetes and liver problems, can't get traditional insurance and is on Medicaid.

Several doctors, Janet said, turned her husband away because of his numerous health problems. However, a doctor in Louisville agreed to see him and told him that if the proper tests had been conducted prior to the gastric bypass surgery, they would have revealed that Jim wasn't a good candidate for the procedure.

The doctor told Jim that he was so malnourished that Janet's fears that he would go to sleep and not wake up were within just a few days of becoming reality.

To treat the malnutrition, the new doctor inserted a gastronomy tube into Jim. While it has helped him regain some weight, it hasn't improved Jim's other condition, which prevents him from walking by himself.

Jim, who had long suffered headaches, last year began experiencing back pain and sought treatment from a chiropractor. However, instead of feeling better, he began having more problems, as his legs would go numb and he would fall, resulting in several fractured bones due to the osteoporosis.

His doctor told him that he had spinal stenosis, a condition due to the narrowing of the spinal canal that causes a numbness in the lower extremities, and that some discs in his back had been ripped and most were deteriorated. He was told that his headaches, which other doctors had attributed to stress, were also likely due to the condition.

While the spinal stenosis has caused problems, the gastric bypass surgery is responsible for the majority of Jim's ailments.

"I'm going to say about 80 percent of them are due to the surgery," he said.

Prior to his health problems, Jim would work up to 100 hours a week "and still be able to come home and be a dad and be a husband," he said. "Now, I can't even be that."

Jim took a few months off from driving early last year, hiring someone else to drive his truck, but his health deteriorated so much last spring that he hasn't driven since May.

With Jim unable to drive, the family has been left with no income and used its savings to get by. Once the savings was gone, they turned to family, friends, community agencies and anyone they could think of to help.

Janet, who has training in the medical field, working most recently as a cardiology technologist, would like to get a job to support her family, but she can't leave her husband. The family can't afford a qualified caregiver, and Medicaid will only pay for respite personnel who legally can't tend to Jim's medical needs.

Jim has applied for Social Security, but he has been turned down because the government contends his condition is a result of the recovery process of the gastric bypass surgery and he will be better by September. Janet said Social Security officials never considered his other health problems, including the osteoporosis and spinal stenosis, and that, by doctor's orders, he cannot lift anything.

Jim and Janet have sold everything — from large items like Jim's truck to small items like tools and fishing poles — that they could to try to scrape up money so they can stay in their home. Their vehicles have been repossessed and their telephone service was disconnected briefly until friends helped pay the bill.

"We've exhausted about every community service known to us," Janet said.

The family, she explained, has one option left, albeit one that either she or her husband like. Someone told her about an agency that will pay Janet to serve as Jim's caregiver. However, to receive payment, they can't be married and would have to get divorced, since if she was his wife, she would legally be required to care for him.

Having contacted the governor's office, as well as other elected officials, only to be told there isn't anything they can do, Jim and Janet, who have been married eight years, have filed for divorce. Although the pay will be much less than what she could get working in the medical field, it will be enough to get by, Janet said.

To be hired by the company, she also must have a vehicle, since she will be responsible for taking Jim to the doctor. However, she currently doesn't have one since the couple just had theirs repossessed, and she can't afford to buy another.

Even if she can find a car, Janet won't begin receiving a check until April, meaning the family must somehow make ends meet until then. Having tapped every resource they can think of, it will be a challenge to ensure that they will continue to have a roof over their heads.

"We have fought and struggled so hard for the past two years" only to be so close to getting back on their feet, Janet said. Currently, their only income is a $346 monthly government assistance check.

Jim remains hopeful that his health will improve. His current doctor has proposed he have a gastric bypass reversal, which while it likely won't help his stomach to begin contracting, meaning the gastronomy tube will still be needed, it may help the lining of his stomach and small intestine absorb nutrients, which would help with the osteoporosis.

There is no guarantee the surgery will work, and the complicated procedure — it will require 21 days in the hospital — could even kill him. However, Jim has trust in his doctor and just wants to be able to play with his children and be the husband that he was before the bypass.

"To be honest with you, I don't want to live like this the rest of my life, so, yeah, I'm up for it," he said.

Janet, on the other hand, remains leery because of the odds, which the doctor has told them are about 50/50.

However, the couple has some time to make a final decision, as Jim, who still bleeds from earlier procedures, must heal before having another surgery.

*****

Donations to the Gilbrechs may be made at any First Harrison Bank branch, where an account has been established. When making donations, persons should mention the James Gilbrech benefit fund account, which is in Janet's name.

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