Road to recovery

When Debby Wisecup's brain started bleeding, medical bills, community support piled up

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On June 27, Debby Wisecup had a bad headache.

She'd had migraines before, so when Debby told her daughter Alicia, then 17, about her headache, Alicia didn't think too much of it.

But when her mother started to get sick, Alicia called her father, Chuck Wisecup, chief of the Oak Creek Fire Protection District, who said he'd come right away. Chuck also called an ambulance to get Debby to Yampa Valley Medical Center.

At the hospital, doctors discovered Debby's brain was bleeding.

After years of working on accidents and medical emergencies across Routt County, Chuck suddenly found himself handling a personal emergency.

His thoughts were focused on his wife, and not on how he would pay for the ambulance ride, which then turned into a $14,000 Flight for Life helicopter trip to Denver.

Just a few days earlier, Chuck learned he didn't have health insurance.

Chuck had worked for the Oak Creek Public Works Department for about 20 years, during which time the town bought his insurance.

When he became fire chief Jan. 1, he had funds added to his salary to buy his own insurance. A letter in the mail just a few days before Debby was taken to the hospital told Chuck his family hadn't been accepted by his first-choice carrier.

A bleeding brain

At first, Chuck said he didn't think his wife would be alive when she arrived at the hospital in Denver.

When Chuck asked the doctors to tell him about his wife's condition, they weren't hopeful.

"I said, 'I want it straight up. Tell me,'" Chuck said. "(The doctor) said, 'It doesn't look good.'"

But as bad as it was, Chuck said it could have been worse. Debby suffered a spontaneous brain bleed, in which there is generalized bleeding in the brain's ventricles. Typically that's not as serious as some strokes or aneurysms, Chuck said.

But it was bad enough to keep Debby in a coma for two weeks and at Denver Medical Center for 40 days.

During that time, Chuck and his daughter stayed at a hotel across the street. Chuck's son and his wife stayed in Denver for two weeks.

It was 542 steps from the hotel room to Debby's hospital bed, Chuck said.

Chuck said he thought Debby might have high blood pressure, but she never went to the doctor to get it checked out. She's a "very strong-willed person," he said.

Then again, it's that strong will and determination that, Chuck believes, helped his wife survive.

Alicia agreed. She remembers how a doctor in Denver told the family that Debby had about a 10 percent chance of waking up, and that he'd be shocked if she came out of the coma in six months.

"Two days later, she opens her eyes," Alicia said. "She's feisty, which is good. ... I had hope that she was going to beat the odds."

Starting to recover

On Monday, it will be exactly five weeks since Debby arrived at the Doak Walker Care Center at Yampa Valley Medical Center. When she first came, she couldn't sit on the side of her bed by herself.

Now she's sitting, walking, talking and doing simple activities, such as brushing her hair and making peanut butter and honey sandwiches.

She watches MTV -- her favorite TV station -- and Chuck said she'll hopefully be able to play her PlayStation in a few months. Debby, he said, has a youthful heart.

Sometimes she gets frustrated that she can only do simple things, Chuck said, but even that frustration is a good sign.

"There's a lot of things that I see in the old Deb," Chuck said.

Chuck has been recording every step of his wife's progress. He has a daily log of Debby's temperature, blood pressure and other vital signs, and he wrote down the first time she opened her eyes, the first time she cried, the first time she spoke.

Debby doesn't have good short-term memory and her balance and coordination need to improve, but she's making progress, Chuck said.

"I have that record, and so at some point I can go back through it and tell her," he said. "That's one thing that's been very hard for her. Every time I tell her she was in Denver for 40 days, she shakes her head and starts crying because that part of her life is blank."

Alicia also will be able to help her mother fill in the blanks. One memory Alicia will share will be when Debby sang "Happy Birthday" when Alicia turned 18 on Aug. 18.

Alicia kept hoping that her mother would be able to talk by her birthday. Singing was a bonus.

"I started crying. I've been able to keep my cool and not cry in front of her, but when she started singing, I started crying," she said.

Small-town support

With no insurance to cover Debby's medical bills, Chuck has watched doctors' bills pile up. Debby's 40-day stay in Denver cost about $200,000. On top of that, there are bills from doctors and other teams of specialists who worked with Debby in Denver, and bills for the care Debby received from Doak Walker Care Center.

"We were victims of circumstance," Chuck said.

Chuck was able to secure Medicaid funding for Debby, and he said he believes it could work retroactively to cover her from the first ambulance ride to the hospital.

Without that, he said his only choice would have been to file for bankruptcy.

Support of the town and people from across the nation also has helped make paying the bills possible, Chuck said.

"I'm fourth-generation Routt County, and something I've seen in Oak Creek and Routt County as a whole is the community pulling together at a time when you need it," he said.

Even though, as fire chief, Wisecup didn't get vacation time or sick leave, his paychecks have come to his home for the 40 days he spent in Denver and the past five weeks he's been in Steamboat Springs with his wife.

The Oak Creek Fire Department held a car wash fund-raiser Saturday, a benefit for Debby has been scheduled for Sept. 14, and a donation fund in Debby's name has been set up at Vectra Bank.

The Wisecups have received countless cards, many of them containing checks for $20, $30 and more.

There was even a card with a $500 check from the Colorado State Fire Mechanics Association.

"I knew none of them," Chuck said. "I didn't even know it existed."

Sandy Wisecup, Chuck's mother who lives in Oak Creek, said her phone has been ringing constantly.

"I still get calls all the time -- people wanting to know how Debby is, if they can go see her," Sandy said. "Just everybody."

The outpouring of generosity helps Debby's family, Sandy said, but one of the biggest helps to Debby herself has been her husband's devotion.

"I don't know of hardly any husbands or anything that would do what he did," Sandy said.

Chuck always makes sure Debby is comfortable, putting Chapstick on her lips and eye drops in her eyes and moving her around to exercise her when she couldn't do those things on her own, Sandy said.

Sometimes Debby got annoyed with his constant attention.

"He was just like an old mother hen. Every 10 minutes, it was 'Are you comfortable, do you need this, do you need that?'" Sandy said.

"Chuck basically has devoted most of his life to the town of Oak Creek and his family. That's his town and that's his family. And of course, his family comes first."

Homecoming

Debby came home for Oak Creek's Labor Day celebration. As Chuck drove her into town, he asked her to give directions to their home. As soon as she walked in the door, their dogs went crazy.

Debby rode in the firetruck with Chuck for the parade, and when Oak Creek Mayor Cargo Rodeman saw Debby, she gave Debby a blue ribbon and dubbed her the "hometown hero."

After the parade, residents lined up to say hello to Debby and wish her well.

Many were amazed to see her, Chuck said. He said he's thankful for his wife's recovery so far, but in some ways, he's not too surprised.

"From the start, I put it in the Lord's hands and everything has fallen into place," Chuck said. "This is nothing short of a miracle. And I prayed for a miracle without being selfish, and I believe it's happened."

But there will be more miracles to come, Chuck hopes.

"My biggest day is going to come," he said. "The doctors (in Denver) told me, 'When she recovers, we want to see her walk in this hospital and meet her.'"

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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