Couple’s ‘shock’ $120k hospital bill
ALL any new parents want after the birth of a baby is to hold their bundle of joy, gaze down at that tiny face and share in the miraculous moment together.
But for Sydney couple Rhys McGowan and Ellice Mol, it would be several long and uncertain days before they could cradle little Franklin properly.
On July 24 this year, moments after coming into the world, their son was whisked away by doctors and placed in neonatal intensive care.
"We had imagined that moment, him being born, for so long," Rhys recalled.
"The plan was that he would come to Ellice for skin-to-skin contact with her and then to me. Instead, he was taken off to the side and we could only touch his little feet for a moment."
Franklin was born several weeks premature and his dangerously underdeveloped lungs required him to remain on a breathing machine.
"He was hooked up to so many things keeping him alive, which was so hard to see," Rhys said.
"He had a feeding tube in, heart rate and blood pressure monitors. Just to pick him up required three people to manoeuvre around all the cords.
"It's like there's a barrier between you and your child when all you want is to be close to them. We just wanted to pick him up freely and move around with him."
The pressurised oxygen mask enveloped most of his face, Ellice said. It was five days until they could get a good look at him after he stabilised and was discharged.
And at the end of it all, utterly exhausted and 15,000km from home, they were hit with an enormous $120,000 hospital bill.
Ellice was born with the life-threatening lung condition cystic fibrosis, which remained largely manageable until her late 20s.
"It was around then that my lungs started to fail," she said.
"Rhys and I had been together for about a year-and-a-half at that point when I suddenly needed a double lung transplant. He cared for me throughout my recovery, which was pretty horrific.
"A few days after the transplant, I went back into surgery because there was a bleed near my heart. And in 2014, I had an episode of (organ) rejection and lost about half of the lung function I'd gained."
It was a devastating setback that came around the time the couple was discussing starting a family together.
Ellice's doctors told her that falling pregnant would put her and the baby at serious risk of death, and suggested she and Rhys explore alternative options if they wanted to have a child.
"It was a lot to deal with at the time," Rhys said.
"Once we were ready to start that conversation again, we decided surrogacy was the way we'd go. We were able to produce viable embryos ourselves so really we just needed to find a remarkable woman to help us."
They looked to Canada and its well-run and resourced surrogacy system and began researching the process of finding a woman to carry their child.
Ellice's friend introduced them to her sister-in-law, a Canadian birth photographer who had an insight into the process.
"We hadn't met Kendal before but we began chatting with her to get a sense of how it all worked," Rhys said.
"The three of us became quite close. After a while, she offered to be our surrogate."
The remarkable and generous gesture saved them considerable time in an otherwise lengthy and complicated process.
Within five months, they were pregnant. Rhys and Ellice found out the happy news on Christmas Day last year.
"It was a fairly normal pregnancy," she said. "The ultrasounds were good. He looked big, strong and healthy on the scans. He had a good heartbeat. Everything looked good."
As they were arranging insurance for Franklin post-birth - the Canadian system doesn't consider newborns from surrogacy to be residents - an unfortunate set of circumstances played out.
Doctors diagnosed a condition called vasa previa with velamentous cord insertion, meaning Franklin would need to be born via caesarean.
"The complication wasn't with the baby per say," Rhys explained.
"It's where the umbilical blood vessels cover the cervix, the birth canal. The danger was that if Kendal went into labour naturally, and that membrane that had his blood vessels enmeshed in it ruptured, it could rupture his blood vessels.
"That of course is his lifeline, so that becomes high risk, very dangerous."
A C-section was scheduled for a few weeks before the due date to reduce the likelihood of Kendal going into labour.
Insurance wouldn't cover a premature birth and associated medical expenses.
"The plan was meant to bypass the whole thing," he said. "So, we were booked in and good to go. It was a couple of weeks before he was due, which is essentially considered full term."
In mid-July, Rhys and Ellice arrived in Vancouver to prepare for their baby's scheduled arrival. A few days later, just after going to bed, the phone rang.
"Kendal went into labour three weeks earlier than the scheduled C-section," he said. "We rushed to the hospital and got in our scrubs and went into theatre.
"For me, I was immediately overcome with very intense joy. The sense of gratitude for Kendal, for her generosity that allowed us to get to that point, was very overwhelming. It was exciting that the day was here."
They held Kendal's hand. They heard Franklin's cries as he was born. Images of their new lives together as a family unit began to fill their heads.
And then the expressions on the faces of the doctors changed. They began to murmur to each other and it was clear something was wrong.
"I've spent a lot of time in hospital myself," Ellice said.
"When I saw that he was struggling to breathe, I knew what he was going through. That was very hard to watch.
"I felt like a mother immediately. I suddenly realised what my mother had gone through, seeing me when I was sick. It was very emotional."
The issue of their insurance wasn't on their minds at that point. Franklin's condition was precarious and they were totally preoccupied with his care.
But in the days that followed, in the quiet of night while they maintained a vigil beside his crib in intensive care, they did begin to wonder how much this all might be costing.
"We were expecting it to be high because of the cost of healthcare in Canada, but we didn't realise it would be quite as much as it was," Ellice said.
"There's the amount per day for the hospital stay and then a whole lot of expenses on top of that for procedures and doctors. It all came as quite a shock."
The bill totalled $120,000. They came to an agreement with the hospital's finance department to put down a deposit so they could go home and enter a long-term payment plan.
That debt will hang over the young family's heads for a very long time.
A GoFundMe campaign started to help with their financial situation has so far raised almost $23,000.
"It's incredible," Ellice said. "People are so amazing and wonderfully generous. It's really surprised us just how far the campaign has spread in a short time.
"Family and friends have been so supportive, but then people we don't know have donated so generously. It's really touching."
In September, she and Rhys returned home to Sydney with Franklin, who is a happy and healthy little boy.
"He's so beautiful and very sweet. He's quite content. Everyone says he's very relaxed and very chill for a baby," she said.
He upstages the other newborns at mums and bubs yoga class, a vital part of Ellice's ongoing health regiment to stay well.
"He's got my eyes," Ellice said of little Franklin. "I recognised them the moment I saw him. He's got dark hair like his dad though."
And Rhys added: "He's got my winning personality, too."
Visit Rhys and Ellice's GoFundMe page if you'd like to support their campaign to help repay Franklin's hospital care bill