STAMFORD — It was two days before the food truck season came to a close as the harsher winter months settled in. Amando Uribe, a Stamford resident and owner of the Jefes Tacos N’ Grill food truck, was preparing to stow away the Mexican eatery that he and his wife, Gladys Rivera-Cadillo, had purchased four years ago.
But on that December night there was something wrong with the 15,000-pound beast. The Acapulco native heard a strange noise emanating from the vehicle’s underbelly. Maybe something was wrong with the engine. Uribe knew some things about mechanic work and figured it would take just a minute to fix.
But seconds after Uribe went under the truck to see what was amiss, the giant machine toppled from its secured frame and fell on him, gravely injuring his spine, ribs and hips.
“El carro básicamente me aplastó,” Uribe recently recalled, nearly one year later. “The truck basically crushed me.”
Uribe, a chef of 20 years who also worked in construction, was taken to Stamford Hospital and soon transported to Yale New Haven Hospital where he underwent spinal surgery.
Uribe’s lower body was paralyzed in the accident. Rivera-Cadillo has become his personal caretaker ever since, splitting her time between working the food truck and helping her husband with menial tasks and moving around their Stamford home.
“The most important thing is that he’s recovering,” Rivera-Cadillo said. “We’ve had to do more than before but we’re going little by little.”
Uribe’s terrible injuries were only the start of their troubles. Without health insurance, the couple was flooded with bills for the spinal surgery, which cost around $60,000, rehabilitation and physical therapy, around $500 per day, and drugs and medicine, over $300 each month — not to mention all the equipment needed to help a now-paralyzed man get around.
As of this week, Uribe said his debt, all of which he has to cover out of pocket, is around $150,000.
“You can look for help and resources but we don’t earn that much and don’t have insurance,” Uribe said. “Everything changes and the personal expenses keep going up.”
Online fundraising as a way to seek help
With medical care costs in the United States reaching $10,739 per person in 2017 — or 17.9 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services — and nearly 14 percent of adults in the country without health insurance as of late 2018, according to Gallup, many Americans delay getting needed health care, or they go to the emergency room for care at least once a year.
Others, like Uribe, do not have that option, and face financial hardship when illness or injury strikes.
While the ratio of Stamford residents with health insurance has gone up from 90 to 94 percent from 2015 to 2018, one out of five residents actively put off medical care at some point in the last 12 months, according to the 2019 Community Health Needs Assessment report from Stamford Health.
A majority say they’re too busy with work commitments, but many say the reason they delay is cost.
For some residents — with or without health insurance — GoFundMe has become a way to pay some of their extensive medical bills, even if it amounts to a small percentage of what they owe.
The American for-profit crowdfunding platform reports more than 250,000 medical campaigns per year, with users raising an amount larger than $650 million annually to help dig themselves out of debt. GoFundMe’s CEO Rob Solomon, in an interview with CBS MoneyWatch back in January, said that a third of all donations on the site are specifically made to cover health care costs.
A review of Stamford-based GoFundMe campaigns show more than a dozen of health care related ones, a number of them for rehabilitation or cancer fights that go back as far as four years. Each case is an intimate vignette into the lives of people whose financial security has, to a certain degree, been upended by mounting costs.
Uribe’s case is just one of several.
Elisa Gorman, a Stamford resident, said she was diagnosed 10 months ago with breast cancer. Unable to work as much on her own business venture after the diagnosis, Gorman heard from a friend that GoFundMe could be a viable way to find a support system.
“I haven’t been able to work and can’t afford all of the costs and doing all this holistic treatment when it comes to supplement care,” said Gorman, who has ConnectiCare insurance. The insurance covers about 30 percent of her medical costs, Gorman said; she’s had a deductible amounting to $6,000 and nearly $15,000 in medical bills.
Her GoFundMe page, created July 28, has raised just over $10,000, an amount that she said she’s grateful for and will help her stay alive as she continues treatment.
“I’m absolutely humbled and grateful for everyone who has pitched in,” said Gorman, who had appointments this week and was hoping to hear about a potential surgery soon. “It’s hard to do it on your own.”
Gorman is an example that even for those with insurance, medical bills can become an immense financial pressure.
Another Stamford resident, Chris Trudeau, began a GoFundMe on Sunday, an effort to help pay for his father Charles Trudeau’s 17-year fight against prostate cancer.
The disease spread to Charles Trudeau’ spine and brain, and the elder Trudeau moved into hospice care, which his Medicare only partially covered.
“I must admit, we’re all in a very difficult and challenging position given the current requirements of my father’s care and my motivation to launch the campaign was due primarily to the limited coverage that Medicare provides for hospice related services,” Chris Trudeau wrote in an email.
On Tuesday, Charles Trudeau died, his son said in an update.
“He is with the Lord now. Over the last several days he was surrounded by love, family and friends,” Chris Trudeau wrote on the campaign website.
As of Friday, the fundraiser had collected nearly $6,000.
“The funds that have been generated from this campaign that did not go towards his care will go towards his memorial services and my mother’s continued care as she continues to fight her own battle against breast cancer,” Chris Trudeau wrote.
A long fight
For Uribe, the struggle also continues.
In the months since his accident, Uribe has continued rehabilitation and treatment, a complicated process exacerbated by a lack of insurance. The couple has sleuthed through the web and eBay to find used or somewhat new accessories to assist Uribe.
“When you don’t have insurance, you get little rehabilitation,” Uribe said. He had care at The Grimes Center in New Haven and has been going to the Community Health Center in Stamford since the summer for monthly routine checkups. The help he gets there is not as expensive as at a hospital.
Amy Taylor, vice president of the Community Health Center Inc. western region, said that the Stamford clinic accepts all patients regardless of insurance coverage or income.
“We want to make sure we’re caring for people and providing for preventative care,” Taylor said, adding that the clinic refers patients to outside care if needed but can come back for primary care.
Still, Uribe’s medical costs, since last December, have ballooned to over $150,000 — an amount that continues to grow due to the amount of medication and supplies like catheters and drugs he requires on a monthly basis.
“From the beginning, I’ve thought about what to do with my business,” said Uribe, whose long-term plan is to open up his own restaurant establishment. “For me, my customers are very important and I want to bring them something authentic from Mexico.”
The GoFundMe, created Jan. 3 with the help of their son, Christopher Catcha, was a last resort for the family. With Uribe in the hospital and Rivera-Cadillo at his bedside for the first half of the year, the business slumped, affecting their primary source of income.
“We were with little money and we still had to pay rent. We were almost five months in the hospital, my wife and I,” Uribe said.
The fundraiser saw an outpouring of support from people all over Fairfield County, many of whom remarked on the couple’s food enterprise.
“I’ve never met a harder working or nicer man,” Matthew Cherry, who contributed to Uribe’s fund, wrote earlier this year. “If you can find it in your heart to help, I know him and his family would be eternally grateful.”
As of Friday, Uribe’s campaign was just shy of $8,000, a quantity that amazed both Uribe and Rivera-Cadillo.
But those thousands of dollars, Uribe said, were used up in two months, and the donations have slowed. The last donation, per the site, was from four months ago.
The money went to help pay for his care and needed supplies including a wheelchair, a special chair, and the Easystand 5000, a machine that helps him stand straight for 45 minutes to an hour at a time. The couple bought the Easystand used for just under $1,000, a steal as the standing frame can cost up to $5,000.
“The people that know me and helped me, I’m very grateful for. They helped me in my hardest moments,” Uribe said. “And now I have to get up to speed and pay back all that I owe.”
“I’m not as free as I was before but I still believe that I can do more for my family and I,” the chef said.
Earlier this summer, as soon as he could move his hands, Uribe pushed himself to get back to work. Using the his Easystand, Uribe began cutting and slicing the vegetables for his food truck’s tacos and tortas. Unable to leave his home, Uribe would FaceTime his son and wife in the food truck to offer what assistance he could.
“It’s been a tremendous change, it’s a challenge,” Rivera-Cadillo said. “I surprise myself, I didn’t know I had this type of strength. Thankfully, we’re so grateful for the help we’re getting and the strength and courage to continue.