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19-year-old's miracle surgery costly

Todd Imerson, 19, a bespectacled 6-footer with a ready smile and likable air about him, came close to dying two months ago. Now, thanks to the heart of a 29-year-old man from somewhere in Florida who was killed in a motorcycle accident, Todd is ready to get on with his life. Scuttlebutt at Tampa General Hospital, where the heart transplant was performed, was that this was the victim's third motorcycle mishap. "I know it's a good, strong heart," Todd says, because the donor had gotten back on his cycle after two previous accidents.

Todd knows about motorcycles. He was involved in a cycle accident several years ago in which he suffered third-degree burns that required skin grafts.

The medical expenses related to that incident were covered by insurance. So was the heart surgery he underwent at age 6.

Because of those two incidents, "We know the importance of insurance," Todd's mother, Evelyn, said last week. She's a second-grade teacher at Sutherland Elementary School in Palm Harbor. Her husband, Tom, is an assistant principal at Ridgewood Senior High School in New Port Richey. They assumed Todd was covered by his dad's Pasco County school district insurance.

He was not. When Todd turned 19 last January and was not a full-time college student, he was dropped from the policy.

The Clearwater family didn't realize that until August when Todd developed serious heart problems that required a transplant. The Imersons borrowed $75,000 from a friend because that much was required before Todd's name even would be placed in a computer seeking a heart donor. Medical bills now surpass $190,000.

Every time Todd goes in for a biopsy, it's another $2,200, his mother said. The medication he must take to keep his body from rejecting the heart costs $800 to $1,000 a month.

The family is committed to repaying the $75,000 personal loan, and wants eventually to pay all of the medical bills _ somehow. Ev, the nickname Mrs. Imerson prefers, said all of their friends and co-workers have been extremely supportive. But we're talking big bills here.

"It's very stressful when you start thinking about it," she said.

But you have to start someplace, so friends of the family have organized a benefit performance at the Showboat Dinner Theater for 4 p.m. Nov. 4. The show is Wife Begins at 40 starring Vicki Oleson.

Tickets are $25, with $10 of that covering the cost of the dinner and performance and the other $15 going to the Todd Imerson Transplant Account. Tickets may be ordered by calling Clearwater Central Catholic High School, 535-1645, where Todd's dad once was an assistant principal, or family friends Linda and Dave Anderson, 785-0217.

You may send a contribution to the Todd Imerson Transplant Account, P.O. Box 27139, Tampa 33688.

Meanwhile, the Imersons, despite facing a mind-boggling financial burden, are a happy family. Who wouldn't be? The family is intact _ Tom, Ev, Todd and his 17-year-old brother, Ryan, a Countryside High junior.

They can talk calmly about the series of events that began unfolding in mid-July when Todd started experiencing what seemed like stomach pains and would be out of breath after walking across a room.

He was examined at All Children's Hospital and told on Aug. 4 that he might require a heart transplant because of a condition unrelated to the childhood heart problems and surgery. He was airlifted the next day to Tampa General.

Todd developed a viral infection, so plans for a transplant were delayed. But on Aug. 14 his condition deteriorated rapidly, and at 6 p.m. his name was moved to the top of the computer list.

"At one point we were told by the doctors that the end is near," Tom said.

The family went home that night, figuring it would be at least several days or longer before a heart would be donated. They were called at 10 p.m. to return to the hospital because a heart was on the way.

Todd said the nurses wanted his parents to tell him the news, but he knew something was up when he was told he could not eat or drink. When he got the word, he said, "Hot dog, let's do it!"

The transplant was performed at 4 the next morning, and a day later he was up and walking, tubes and all. "I felt great!" he said.

Todd is naturally "bummed out" that all this had to happen. Who wouldn't be? But he's grateful that it has turned out this way.

He said his attitude was more upbeat than anybody's, including the nurses. He remembers saying at one point when things were not looking good, "Relax, people. There's no need to panic. I'm not going to die," perhaps not realizing how sick he was.

Todd said his friends were really supportive, visiting him at the hospital but, like him, sort of "baffled by the enormity of the whole thing." This is something that happens to old people, they all said, not to 19-year-olds.

Todd and his new heart, which he has named Edgar, for no special reason, are home now. He is looking forward to starting a two-year paramedics course at St. Petersburg Junior College in January.

That was his plan before all this happened. But now his goals are more specific. He wants to join the Aeromed team of paramedics and nurses at Tampa General. He met the Aeromed personnel when he was airlifted from St. Petersburg to Tampa. Then several of them visited him when they learned of his interest in following the same career path.

This whole thing may be a "bummer," but good does come of it.

Now, if our society could just figure out how to cope with the financial nightmares that accompany medical miracles.

Bob Henderson is the editor of the North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times.