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Health Care Horror Story: Crippling Medical Bills Force Health Professional Into Foreclosure

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This story is part of the Huffington Post's effort to bear witness to the effects of the current economic environment on ordinary Americans.

When Frank Aprile severed his left thumb and index finger, he had just lost his job and his health insurance. The unfortunate accident would end up costing him much more.

Frank is a perfusionist, highly trained in operating heart and lung machines during complicated surgeries. "We have a very stressful job," says Frank, "that carries tremendous responsibility, and [are] reasonably compensated for it."

In 2005, Muskegon, Michigan's Mercy General cut its surgery department in half. With 20 years under his belt, Frank's nearly-$90,000 salary was the most burdensome on the hospital's balance sheet and he was the first to go.

He couldn't find another job in the months that followed.

Unable to reduce his $1,000 monthly childcare payment and without a steady income to draw from, Frank opted to forgo purchasing private insurance after his employee-provided insurance ran out. Weeks later, he severed his left thumb and index finger in a table saw accident. Both hands are required in his line of work.

In the emergency room of the hospital that formerly employed him, the surgeon on duty suggested they reattach his fingers. Not a man who spent beyond his means (Frank hadn't carried credit card debt in five years), he persuaded the surgeon to proceed with the less-expensive procedure: amputation of both his left thumb and index finger.

With $20,000 in medical bills, mortgage payments and child support, Frank didn't have the time to train in a new profession where he wouldn't have to use his left hand. He spent 40 days in rehabilitation before picking up ad hoc jobs at hospitals across the state. Working wasn't easy after losing two of his digits: "Yeah it hurt, but so did the unpaid bills and the continuous child support obligation."

The number of available jobs in Michigan continued to decrease and finally dried up completely, says Frank. By 2007, he had run through his life's saving and owed $8,000 in child support and over $1,300 on his Countrywide mortgage.

Chasing the only job he could find, Frank moved to Texas, leaving his daughter behind and sleeping on a second-hand mattress in an otherwise unfurnished apartment. "I used cardboard boxes from Sam's Club as furniture and had one camping chair to sit down on." The stark surroundings reminded Frank of his years as a Navy corpsman.

With a house that was significantly underwater -- worth less than the mortgage -- Frank was forced to rent his house at a loss to avoid bankruptcy. He received $450 a month from his renters and covered the other half of the lease himself.

"I was robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said.

Separated from his daughter, indebted to Countrywide and owing inflated child support, Frank worked every hour that his hospital allowed to pay off the debt on a house he didn't live in.

"I didn't want to lose the house that I'd lived in. And I know if I let the mortgage default, I'd never own a house again."

In April of this year, Frank decided to skip a mortgage payment in order to fly his daughter to Texas for spring break. He hadn't seen her for six months.

His bank would not forgive him for the luxury of seeing his daughter.

Bank of America, which at this point owned Countrywide and Frank's mortgage, stopped accepting payments and began throwing on additional charges, such as default penalties and legal fees, he says.

In May, Frank claims he offered to pay $8,000 in late payments and penalties but Bank of America refused his offer and went forward with foreclosure. They have stopped returning his calls, according to him.

"I could have caught up on payments by now. They are basically taking the house because they can ... [but] the bank will lose money, the renters will have to move out... the way they took it is just unfair."

A spokesmen for Bank of America could not be reached for comment.

The loss of his job and health insurance had a cascading affect. Frank is not alone. According to the bipartisan National Coalition on Health Care, 1.5 million people lose their homes each year due to unaffordable medical costs.

But Frank refuses to see himself as a victim of the recession or of the employer-based health care system. What pained him most during this ordeal were the people who pegged him as a deadbeat dad when he got behind on child support.

"There is no empathy for being unemployed," he said.

Despite all this, Frank somehow remains optimistic.

"The child support is caught up, payments reduced to the original level, and we will start from scratch once again because the one thing I never lost was my daughter's love and my determination to never, never, never surrender."

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