Kim Spiller knows union value up close and personal: living on a modest salary as a teacher’s aide, it was the union-negotiated health insurance that saved her from a $350,000 hospital bill after an emergency amputation of her left leg due to a rapid, flesh-eating virus.
Spiller has worked 14 years in the classroom with mentally challenged students as a member of the Teachers Aides and Student Behavior Health Specialists of Monroe 2-Orleans BOCES.
She told her story to NYSUT union organizer Liz Smith-Rossiter, from the Rochester regional office, who recently visited the Spiller home to talk about the importance of signing her union card in the face of the pending Janus v. AFSCME case that will determine whether public-sector unions can impose mandatory fees on non-members to cover costs associated with collective bargaining. A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is expected as early as tomorrow. Regardless of the outcome, Spiller already decided she’s sticking with her union — the one that protects her health and job.
Two years ago in March she had a horrific sore throat that she said felt like “swallowing glass.” She felt sick all over, and said the only place she was comfortable sleeping was on the floor because it was cool there. When she got up from the floor, she stepped on the hem of her sweatpants, tripped and sprained her ankle.
That sprain probably saved her life.
At an urgent care medical clinic, she was given a walking boot and informed that her blood pressure was very low, which she said was unusual since hers is typically high. The medical staff suggested she go to the hospital. She went to her regular doctor, instead, and blood work was drawn.
As she was heading to her home in Hamlin, the doctor called her husband John and told him to get Spiller to the ER immediately. The blood work was alarming.
“After that point I don’t remember much,” she said.
The ER was focusing on her upper respiratory issues, but when they took off her walking boot, she said both sides of her leg had black and blue blisters.
“My husband kept saying ‘Look at her leg.’ But they covered my leg up; they weren’t concerned. Then, later, the blisters burst and you could see down the bone,” she said.
A red line indicated poisoning from a flesh-eating disease that was tearing through her system.
“We don’t know where it came from,” said Spiller.
Doctors diagnosed her with necrotizing fasciitis, which the Centers for Disease Control defines as a serious bacterial skin infection that spreads quickly, killing the body’s soft tissue. It can cause death in a short amount of time.
The teachers aide said that doctors at Unity Hospital in Greece put her in an induced coma, and told her husband they would have to remove her left leg to keep her alive.
“They put me in a coma for about a month. They thought I wouldn’t make it,” she said.
Recalling some humor in a tragic situation, she said when she woke up from the coma, she was hallucinating about seeing a dog show, and about Fred and Barney’s car from The Flintstones.
After another month of physical therapy in the hospital, she was released.
“It was scary. (But) family and friends said ‘You got this.’”
Since then, she’s been through two or three prosthetic legs, which have not always worked well.
“It’s miserable,” she said. “But I’m not one to give up.”
If she has to walk far, she uses a cane.
“My overall bill was $350,000.”
But thanks to her union-negotiated health coverage, that’s not at all what she paid.
Spiller was responsible only for $1,000 of her hospital bill, as well as a co-pay for her prosthetic foot — which without her union health plan would have cost $5,000. Her prosthetic leg, meanwhile, cost her only $1,400 — something she would have paid $15,000 for without her union-negotiated coverage.
“It was a big relief. Thank God for the insurance,” Spiller said. “I’d never be able to pay that bill! Ever!”
She misses mowing the lawn and long walks, she said. But her friends all pitched in and bought her a ‘water leg’ for when she is in the shower or out boating in the Thousand Islands area, an activity she loves.
“I’m praying everything works out,” said Spiller, who returned to work the following January after her illness.
She is mindful of the blessing in having a job to return to thanks to another union-negotiated benefit: job protection when ill.
“It was great knowing I could come back to work,” Spiller said. “I love my job!”
Smith-Rossiter was moved by Spiller’s story, realizing that without health insurance, sometimes people avoid going to the doctor. Without swift, proper care, Spiller could have died. Without health insurance, she could have been rendered homeless from hospital bills.
“Part of the power of a house visit is moving someone from reflection to action,” said Smith-Rossiter, a former American Federation of Teachers organizer who will be knocking on doors for NYSUT all summer. “On a house visit we have the time, and the focus and intention to spend with a member and hear their story.”