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Despite being tested, couple is upbeat

February 01, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

She went to North High and he went to Smithsburg, but Angela and Jimmy Koontz were still high school sweethearts. She dreamed of being a stay-at-home mom, raising her children and some animals on a farm.

They've got a four-acre rented plot of ground now, but it's going to take more time and money than they thought to make her dream of a family come true.

Two years ago 26-year-old Angela's first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, but the Washington County couple decided to try again. But then a sonogram detected a growth called a cystic hygroma on the back of the unborn baby's neck.

"It's a pocket of skin that fills up with fluid," Jimmy Koontz said, adding that it's usually not malignant. However, he said, "80 to 90 percent of the time, it means there's chromosomal defects." If that were confirmed, Angela Koontz said, the child would go right from the delivery room to life support, with little expectation of surviving for long.

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And so the Koontzes went for a chromosome test, which to their delight turned out to be negative. But all the tests turned up something else, a condition called hypoplastic left heart syndrome, or HLHS for short.

According to information from the Nemours Cardiac Center of the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Delaware, there is no cure for HLHS, but there are surgical procedures that will allow the right side of the heart to do the work of both sides.

The Koontzes said they've been told that aside from an increased susceptibility to infection and some restrictions on physical activity, the child should be able to live a normal life.

But the surgical treatment - actually three separate procedures - and the preparations for it, are anything but simple and certainly won't be cheap.

Because of the need for specialized care, Angela's prenatal care and exams are done once a week in Harrisburg, Pa. Sometimes, she said, they're lucky enough to get an appointment early in the day, so they can get half a day or work in. But more often both must take the whole day off, she said.

Both their employers - he works at Liberty Mountain Resort and she's employed by the Hagerstown YMCA - have been understanding, but neither gets paid when they don't work, and the bills are starting to pile up.

Jimmy Koontz said the total so far is about $3,000 and the insurance companies won't talk about how much of the cost of surgery they'll cover until it actually takes place.

And so they do the best they can, with Jimmy working as many hours as he can. They've had to get rid of many animals in their small herd of dairy goats because they can't afford the cost of feed and because they fear that one of the friendly critters will accidentally knock Angela down.

That wouldn't be good, because she's due to deliver soon.

"My due date is April 2," she said.

"That's just 10 weeks away," he said.

Angela will go to Harrisburg for the delivery, and after the baby has been stabilized, it will be flown by helicopter to the Nemours Center, where the first of three surgeries will be done when the child is only a week old.

"The next one will be six months after that and six months after that they'll do the last one," he said.

It's the first surgery that's the most critical, Angela said, adding that the surgeon has told her that "it's just a matter of getting them through that first year."

Asked if they had ever wondered "Why us?" both said that they actually felt lucky, since the first diagnosis was much worse and carried with it the possibility that they might not only lose the baby, but that Angela's life might also be at risk.

"It totally took a 180-degree spin on this," he said.

But there are still money worries. Jimmy has worked out a time payment plan with Waynesboro Hospital for the care Angela got there, but it costs the couple $30 in gasoline every time they go to Harrisburg, not to mention time lost from work. The uncertainty about what portion of the surgical bills will be covered is also a concern, they said.

In the best of all possible worlds, citizens of the richest country in the world wouldn't have to worry about how their medical bills would be covered, but that problem hasn't been solved yet and the Koontzes need some help.

Their church, Shiloh United Methodist, is collecting money to help. The address is 19731 Shiloh Church Road, Hagerstown, MD 21742.

Both of these people love children, though they have none of their own yet. They volunteer as 4-H leaders and with the children's choir of their church and Angela works in the YMCA's day care center.

You can call what has happened to them fate or bad luck, but they are upbeat about it, treating it as something that might have been a lot worse. If nothing like this has ever happened to you, one way to give thanks might be to help them get through their ordeal without going broke.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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