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Editor's Note: Doctors and lawyers

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By Tom McDonald

It was 1992. Months earlier, my first daughter had been born, and life was good. I had a reporter’s job at a weekly newspaper and, after a scare in the first days of Amy’s life, we were raising a healthy baby.

Looking back at that time, we had so much more than we realized.

What we didn’t have, however, was money.

She was born in a hospital in Little Rock, Ark., but before we could leave with her, we noticed she had a fever and the nurse snatched her away. They weren’t sure what was wrong, so they put her into one of those sterile cribs in the pediatric intensive case unit. There she stayed for a week, as the doctors tried to figure out what was wrong.

Finally, they decided it must have been a staph infection that caused her fever, and they finally released her to us. The bill for that week in intensive care was $10,000 — not so much by today’s standards, but a small fortune for the underfunded and underinsured couple that we were.

We had a single maternity policy that paid up to $1,500 — which pretty much took care of the hurried doctor who delivered Amy. But we still owed the ten grand. When I called the hospital to arrange a payment plan, I was told that the total amount was due in 90 days.

Period. After that, we were flatly informed, they would simply turn it over to a collection agency.

The hospital was good on its word and, three months later, we were hearing from a collector. We arranged a payment plan, with monthly bills that were actually higher than we could afford, so it wasn’t long until we were behind in our payments.

I don’t remember how long they put up with our delinquency, but it seemed less than two months before they were filing suit against us for the full amount owed. I’m sure I was facing a garnishment situation, but we were barely even covering my rent and groceries on my reporter’s salary.

I didn’t know what to do, so I went to an attorney I knew.

After I told him about our situation, he latched on one detail in particular:

He asked me, Why did the hospital have to put your daughter in intensive care? I told him they were somewhat vague about it. I had asked a nurse what had caused Amy’s infection and she said it was probably something she picked up at the hospital.

That’s all my attorney needed to hear. As I sat there in his office, he got on the phone to the attorney representing the collection agency, explaining that he was about to raise the “dispute” to a new level. He told the other attorney that I only wanted to arrange a payment plan he can afford, and that if the agency wasn’t willing to do work with me, we’d raise the issue of who’s responsible for my daughter’s illness.

Your client won’t get anything for at least a couple of years, my attorney told him.

Moreover, he said that I would be out nothing in attorney’s fees because he was taking my case “pro bono.”

Before he hung up, we had an agreement on a payment plan I could afford. And even though it took us several years, we paid it off in full.

I learned a couple of valuable lessons that day. One was that people really will cut you some slack when they know you’re trying to pay your bills. I think that’s why my attorney decided not to charge me. I wasn’t trying to get out of paying — I just needed an affordable plan for doing so.

Plus, I learned that as long as health care costs are so unaffordable high for so many people, attorneys have an important role to play in the process.

So what do you get when you cross a lawyer with a doctor? Someone who can save your livelihood.

Tom McDonald is editor and publisher of the Optic. He may be reached at 505-425-6796, ext. 237, or tmcdonald@lasvegasoptic.com.