Fresno man, 33, gets help for pacemaker

The Fresno BeeJuly 12, 2013 


Dion King got his first pacemaker when he was 16. His doctor has told him his current one may stop working next month.


Beat by electronic beat, Dion King's heart is slowing down.

Within weeks, the pacemaker inside his chest that regulates King's heart could stop. And King, 33, of Fresno, doesn't have health insurance or the cash to pay for a new one.

King, a construction truck driver, is one of the millions of working Americans caught in health limbo — they lack insurance, but they make too much money to get help from the government.

For the past month, King and his family have been scrambling to raise money for his surgery.

"If my son just didn't work, just didn't want to better himself, then he could get the medical care he needs," said Debi King of Fresno.

Not working is not an option, King said. "I'm not going to quit my job and just live on the couch just so I can get some help," he said last week.

It's been hard to ask for help from family, friends and strangers. His mother offered to mortgage her home, but he couldn't accept that, he said. The family has raised more than $12,500 on the web site, and are having a car wash today and Sunday at the Johnny Quik convenience store at Bullard and Fowler avenues in Clovis.

Friday afternoon, King learned his biggest concern — his mother said hospital costs would be about $20,000 — is no longer a worry. Fresno Heart & Surgical agreed to waive its costs, he said.

"It's a huge blessing," King said, minutes after getting the news from his mother about the hospital's donation. Debi King had hand-delivered an application for charity care to the hospital.

Hospital officials could not comment on the donation because of patient privacy laws.

King will be left to pay for the doctor, anesthesiologist and the pacemaker.

How much he will need for that, he didn't know.

King's cardiologist had agreed to put the pacemaker in for half-price, and the pacemaker company, Medtronic, had agreed to donate the pacemaker if he had all the other costs covered, his mother said. Medtronic could not verify this on Friday, and calls to the cardiologist were not returned.

Debi King said she hasn't been able to sleep, worrying that her son's pacemaker would stop, threatening his life. King's fiancée, Brooke Phillips, has had the same fear.

On Thursday, King was told at a doctor's appointment that the pacemaker had to be changed, but "it's not to the point if the pacemaker stops, I would fall over dead," he said.

This won't be the first time King needed a new pacemaker.

He had his first chest pains when he was 15 and testing found sick sinus syndrome, a heart rhythm disorder. His sinus node — the heart's natural pacemaker — works improperly.

At age 16, on Valentine's Day 1997, he got his first pacemaker. That device kept his heart ticking steadily for eight years.

The one in his chest now was implanted when he was 25. He had insurance for that procedure.

When his pacemaker works at full capacity, King has boundless energy and rarely sleeps through the night, but as the device loses power, so does he.

"I can go to sleep anytime I want to now," he said.

At a doctor's checkup in January, King was told the pacemaker would last another 18 months, but at a June appointment, tests showed it had deteriorated faster than expected and most likely would stop working in mid-August.

It's been hard to accept help, King said, but he's had little choice. He's supporting himself, his fiancée and her three young sons.

He's suffered from a string of layoffs. He lost a job selling firearms for a Fresno store in 2009, where he had worked for seven years. In 2010, he found a shipping and receiving job, but was laid off later. In 2011, he found work repairing computers, but that, too, ended with a layoff.

He went to truck driving school and got his license, and in March got a job as a driver for a construction company.

The company offers health insurance. But King said he screwed up. When it was time to enroll in the company's insurance plan, he forgot to turn in the paperwork. He doesn't offer excuses, but notes the family was in the process of moving when the enrollment period for this year ended.

But, King said, "It's definitely a mistake I won't make again."


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6310, or @beehealthwriter on Twitter.

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