Man in India for heart surgery
By Kadi Hodges : The Herald-Sun
CHAPEL HILL -- Howard Staab does not have health insurance. He owns a carpentry business and does not have an employer who can provide insurance.
Staab, who lives on Carolina Friends School Road in Orange County, also acknowledged he doesn't really believe in health insurance.
"I've always thought that the insurance companies are the real terrorists of our country," Staab said recently. "They put terror in everyone's mind. You don't have insurance? You could have a catastrophic accident or illness."
Staab never thought he needed health insurance. He's always has been healthy and fit. He rides his bicycle or swims daily. He feels fine. He and his son have regular physicals and dental check-ups. He didn't think he would need health insurance.
But now, faced with a potentially catastrophic illness, his lack of health insurance has sent him to India -- for surgery on a faulty heart. The surgery was scheduled for Monday afternoon, Indian time.
Staab had gone to his doctor for a routine physical July 22. When his doctor listened to Staab's heart, she said something was wrong, and she ordered an echocardiogram immediately.
The test revealed Staab suffered from a flailing mitral valve with severe mitral regurgitation. The cords which hold his heart valve shut have suddenly snapped -- with no known cause. Blood is now traveling directly from Staab's heart into his lungs. He must have surgery to repair or replace the broken valve, and he needs to do it soon.
Staab and his partner, Maggi Grace, began exploring their options for surgery. Durham Regional Hospital estimated that the operation, surgery, hospital stay and related expenses would cost around $200,000. Staab knew he would never be able to afford the treatment with his own funds.
He briefly shopped for health insurance but quickly realized it would be unaffordable, and it wouldn't cover his heart problems for more than a year.
Staab and Grace explored a variety of possibilities for more affordable treatment. Grace's son, a medical student at Stanford, had just returned to the U.S. after spending the summer in India. He reported that India has high quality physicians, most of whom are trained in the U.S., and there is a world-renowned heart center in New Delhi.
Grace had difficulty contacting the facility in India because of the time difference, phone problems and a computer crash. But two weeks ago, the plan to fix Staab's heart came together. The surgeon in India called them, with Staab's medical records in hand, and agreed to do the surgery for under $10,000.
Grace and Staab flew to India last week. Staab will stay in the hospital for about a week after the surgery and has been advised to stay in India for up to a month to recuperate before the long flight home.
After speaking with Staab's doctors at home, Grace and Staab said before their departure that they believe they are making the most responsible choice.
"[His cardiologist] gave us every confidence that we were on the right track and encouraged us to get it done soon," Grace said before the couple left on their voyage.
Staab and Grace have set up a Web site that provides updates on Howard's condition and offers suggestions for how people can help. Grace said offers have ranged from monetary donations to prayer donations. Friends have been creative: they've donated massages, volunteered to pet-sit while the two are in India, and one person even raffled off his kayak to raise money for the surgery.
"It's been a little humbling," Grace said recently, "embarrassing almost. At times we feel like we should send the money back. But when you count the costs, it's going to be helpful to have a little of the edge taken off. People say you have to learn how to receive gifts."
As for not having health insurance, Staab said before the India trip. "I don't regret that choice. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't get it."
To follow Staab's progress or to see how you can help, visit his Web site at www.howardsheart.com.