By Robert Downes
Russ Barron has literally died five times during the course of his
life, with his heart coming to a complete stop, -- a terrifying
experience that includes the realization that he may have only minutes
Once, his heart quit beating at a traffic light in Traverse City.
I was sitting at a light on South Airport Road and knew that
something bad was going to happen, he recalls. I felt the blood
rushing from my head and knew that I was going to die right there at
my steering wheel.
In desperation, Russ opened his car door and threw himself into
traffic, hoping that someone would stop and help him. I threw myself
out in the street and my heart started up again, he says. I went to
work the next day, but I didnt look so good.
Barron, 52, has lived on the edge of mortality his entire life. Hes
had seven strokes, three open heart surgeries, two heart valve
replacements and 15 pacemaker surgeries. Hes been a patient at
Munson Medical Center five times this year alone for complications
related to his pacemaker, as well as a minor stroke.
Perhaps an ordinary person would crumble under the terrifying pressure
of living in Barrons shoes, and yet Russ has dozens of friends
(including this writer) who find him to be amazingly optimistic,
fun-loving and thoughtful.
Not to mention courageous. Beyond the unpredictability of his heart,
theres only one thing he fears: that a fractured set of rules will
condemn him to death at the hands of the State and Federal health care
Currently on full disability, Barron is faced with the prospect of
surviving 18 months without any health care coverage between the time
he loses his state Medicaid benefits and the time he qualifies for
Medicare under Social Security. Because of his pre-existing heart
condition, its impossible for him to obtain health insurance and hes
already spent everything he owns on his health bills -- at least $1
million, including a lifetime of savings and the sale of his home --
Barron provides a face for the millions of uninsured but hard-working
and responsible Americans who need health care reform. Despite decades
of heart problems and complications, Barron has had successful
careers in several fields and has been a productive member of society
his entire life.
Its difficult going from wearing a shirt and tie and being a
successful professional for 30 years to all of a sudden wondering how
youre going to get out of bed this week, he says.
His problems began the day of his birth when he was literally born blue.
I have a really rare heart condition called Epsteins Anomaly,
Barron says. There may be only 30 of us or so in the eastern United
States who have this disease.
Growing up in Linden, outside Flint, Barron spent most of his
childhood feeling faint, with a blue tint to his lips and skin and
unable to play school sports. Epsteins Anomaly is real simple, he
says. The right side of my heart is upside down and the valves
inside are also upside down, including my hearts electrical system.
Its kind of like having your house wired by someone who doesnt know
anything about electricity and nothing works.
When he was 11, a doctor noticed a heart murmur which led to the
discovery that a valve in Barrons heart wasnt closing properly. I
lived with it, he says, but he wasnt expected to live long: doctors
gave him until the age of 14.
The Barron family moved to Lake Havasu City in Arizona when he was in
his teens, where he had the first of nine pacemakers installed in his
chest in 1980. Today, his chest also packs an automatic
defibrillator which gives his heart a burst of electricity, if and
when it quits beating.
At the age of 24, Barron became the first successful patient in the
world to have what is called a Starr-Edwards valve installed in his
heart at a hospital in Portland, Oregon. This ball & cage
artificial valve has the distinction of being the oldest
continuously-operating heart valve of its kind in the world. You can
hear a lot of clippety-clop in my chest, Barron says.
Despite his health problems, Barron created a successful career.
Following in his fathers footsteps, he became a contractor, building
hundreds of homes in the Lake Havasu area. By the time I was 30, I
was making over $50,000 a year, which was rare back in the 80s, he
says, adding that for a number of years, his earnings ranged into the
His health problems led to an interest in medicine and he went on to
become a respiratory therapist in the Pacific Northwest. Eventually,
he settled back in Michigan, becoming a marketing and operations
manager for DME, a chain of local pharmacies. He also managed a sleep
lab in Traverse City before being laid off -- a situation which
ultimately ended his health insurance benefits, since the COBRA
extension of such runs only 18 months.
Through the years, Barron saw his savings whittled away by co-pays,
hospital stays, home nursing care and shortfalls in what his Blue
Cross-Blue Shield insurance would pay.
Not all doctors accept Blue Cross-Blue Shield, he says, making the
point that even persons with health insurance can pile up bills.
They want the full cost of a surgery or a procedure, so you have to
pay the difference on what the doctor receives from Blue Cross. If
the insurer reimburses $11,000, but the doctor wants $16,000, you have
to pay the remaining $5,000.
In 2003, Barron spent 21 days in the hospital recovering from the
complications of a difficult surgery. When I got out I couldnt work
for four months and there were all of the co-pays and medical bills to
worry about, he says.
Then there are the pharmacy bills: Barron takes 12 pills each
morning, 6 pills each night, and wears a pain patch continually. It
Currently, more than 60% of all personal bankruptcies in America
spring from medical causes, often even among persons who have health
insurance, according to a study in the American Medical Journal.
Barron can confirm that hardship;. Today, he lives with his fiancé
Alice Hauser at her home in Suttons Bay. Theyve had to delay getting
married because of the risk that health care costs might mean to her
own property. I ended up having to spend all of my savings -- my
IRAs and my 401k -- everything I had just to have my surgeries and
For years he struggled to avoid going on disability, despite the
urging of his physician.
I want to be a productive member of society, but my society is
smaller now -- its my friends and clubs, he says, adding that he was
fortunate to receive state disability benefits and Medicaid within a
month of applying.
Despite the help and consideration of many doctors, pharmacists and
state health employees to whom Barron is grateful, in some ways the
health care system is rigged against him -- even to the point of
threatening his life.
Take COBRA benefits from his former employer, for instance. Under the
law, Barron could pay for his COBRA insurance premiums out of his own
pocket, but only for a period of up to 18 months.
I dont know why the health care system wont let you just carry on
your COBRA benefits, but they force you to drop your insurance, he
That means that even if Barron could afford private insurance at a
new, much higher rate, hed be denied coverage because of his
Then there is the impending shortfall in his state and federal coverage:
Barron has been told by the State that hell lose his Medicaid if he
goes on Social Security because hell be making too much money to
qualify for Michigans health program for persons on low incomes. But
under federal rules, hell have to wait two years (or 18 months beyond
the fall-off of his Medicaid) to receive Medicare while hes on Social
Its a potentially fatal Catch 22.
Under the federal system, they say theyll pay you Social Security,
but you must wait two years to get on Medicare. Why? Whoever made up
that rule really wasnt thinking because by that point, youve got all
of these health conditions. Why do I have to wait two years? What is
the logic behind that? Are they waiting for you to die?
Now what do I do? Ive sold all of my assets and Im down to the bare bones.
ANXIETY OVER THE FUTURE
Barrons health problems are rubbed raw by the anxiety he feels over
his impending lack of medical coverage.
This last month was the first time I havent had health coverage in
over 30 years and it was quite a shock, he says, referring to the
fall-off of his COBRA benefits. It was really a depressing day. I
woke up and thought that I dont have insurance, and thats a scary
Like many Americans whove lost their benefits, he began hoarding
pills and cutting dosages. The confirmation of his Medicaid benefits
was a godsend, but he wonders how hell bridge the 18-month gap to
The bitter irony is that unlike the Tea Party stereotypes condemning
moochers trying to receive free health care reform for nothing,
Barron has contributed heavily to Social Security and Medicare all his
life and simply wants a chance to live on what hes put in the system.
I have no quarrels that you should spend all you own before getting
charity or help from the state, Barron says. But he also feels that
he should be able to receive what is his due as a contributing member
Now, knowing that Im a man whos worked all of my life and has done
well and has had to sell everything I own, including all of my
retirement money just to get to this point in disability, all I want
is to try to live a normal life on my own Social Security.
HELPING HANDS & COLD SHOULDERS
A lot of people in the community have offered to help me out, he
says. Loads of people and friends. I have a wonderful support system
in the community and at Munson and from the pharmacy programs at
Target and Walmart. At the end of the day, Im blessed, but Id like
to see a change in our country for the right reasons and see all
Americans have health care coverage. Were supposed to be the greatest
nation in the world, yet we cant provide our people with health
And while there have been angels in his life, there have also been
thoughtless individuals. Barron has been dismayed by persons whove
badmouthed the efforts to reform the nations health care system
without realizing that theyre condemning him to death.
If they only knew.
Anyone can have a stroke tomorrow and within two to four years go
through everything they own and be where I am now with no insurance,
A lot of people are against health care reform, but theyre just in
their own world and dont understand that they could be in my world in
a moments notice.
Write your congressman and U.S. senator if youd like to help Russ
Barron get an exception for his Medicare benefits.