Going Into Debt to Save a Life

An obese woman's family, denied insurance coverage, puts surgery on credit card.

Sept. 30, 2008 — -- Johnna VinZant's life revolved around keeping herself alive. Routine visits to various doctors' offices had become daily "pit stops" -- regular maintenance checks to keep her going.

If the average person saw VinZant on the street, they might have looked at her and seen someone who needed to go on a diet. She is, in fact, morbidly obese -- her 5-foot-3-inch frame carried between 270 and 280 pounds on average.

The weight was literally killing her. She had a laundry list of complications, including diabetes, sleep apnea that strained her heart, spinal disc disease, arthritis and incontinence -- and the list went on.

"Some mornings I wake and I can't even get out of bed. My legs don't work. Can't get to the bathroom. It's scary," she said.

Weighing the Risks

So VinZant decided to make the gamble of her life. She said doctors had told her that bariatric surgery was a necessity because time was running out.

The surgery involved stapling her stomach to make a small pouch, leaving her no choice but to eat less because there's so little space.

She needed to lose weight, a lot of weight, and fast. There was just one problem -- her insurance company suggested a diet program and rejected her request for surgery coverage.

VinZant recognized that her request for surgery to some might be seen as an unnecessary.

"I've been on several different diets," she said. "I've been on several different exercise programs. I'm not a candy bar person. I don't sit and eat Bon Bons in my room at night. I don't have that kind of problem."

VinZant said that her weight was caused by a hormone imbalance and that no amount of weight loss programs would fix it. Her doctor agreed.

"And all this is, is discrimination," said Dr. Alan Wittgrove. "What they want her to do is to submit to a process that is known to fail, that is diets for morbidly obese individuals in lieu of having something that is known to be successful in a very high percentage of the population. No other place in medicine would they do that."

Out Comes the Credit Card

VinZant lives in tiny Soldotna, Alaska and is planning a move to Minneapolis. She has three kids and a husband who does painting and drywall work. Paying for the surgery on her own would have been impossible.

Her father, Skip Dove, is a school custodian and he couldn't afford the roughly $30,000 surgery either.

But he's paying for it anyway on a credit card with a 22 percent interest rate.

"It's a bad idea," he said. "And that's why the strategy is to get the house refinanced and get some of the equity and put it in the credit card."

He worried his daughter would die without the surgery. He'd watched her deteriorate year by year as her weight went up while her ability to do the simplest things vanished.

"More than I can express on camera," he said. "I think their decision to not sign on for this procedure after they, as my understanding they initially approved it, is abominable."

At the age of 35, VinZant spends her time sitting, lying down, going to the doctor and not much else. She said the smallest amount of movement had become excruciating.

"Yes it's very overwhelming," she said. "There's days that I'll just sit down and cry. It's hard, it's very hard."

It's hardest of all on her 10-year-old daughter Shelby and 12-year-old son Adam. VinZant's father blamed the insurance companies.

Bariatric surgery has become increasingly routine, but not without complications for VinZant. Adam, mature well beyond his 12 years, takes care of his mom and does most of the work around the house for her.

"It's very risky," he said regarding the operation, "and if something goes wrong she could die."

VinZant was worried too -- but desperate.

"I'm ready to give up anything for this," she said. "To get back to being with my family and doing activities with them again."

Into the Operating Room

Two weeks later and 4,000 miles away in La Jolla, Calif., VinZant was headed for the operating room.

VinZant had hoped her insurance would come through at the last minute. It hadn't. So with her mother by her side, and credit card at the ready, she headed in for gastric bypass surgery.

"The kids are going to be so happy that mommy comes back and plays with them," said her mother, Beverly Dove. "Healthy and go bike riding and stuff."

"Don't be scared," the nurse told a teary-eyed VinZant. "Don't be. You'll be fine. Everyone does fine. Worked here a long time. There are lots of people who have this."

VinZant called home and left a message for her family before going in for surgery.

"I'm all prepped and ready to go and I just wanted to tell you I loved you and hear your voice," she said. "The hospital let me use the phone here before they took me in for surgery. I miss you very much and I love you and hopefully everything will go good. Talk to you soon. Grandma will call you when I come out of surgery. Love you. Bye."

Wittgrove performed the surgery. He is a man of science with some pretty firm opinions about the business side of medicine.

"It's mind boggling to me why insurance companies do this," he said. "For example, if you come into the emergency room with crushing chest pain, and it looks like you have a heart attack on the EKG and you happen to have some Marlboro cigarettes in your pocket, the emergency room physician is not going to say if you go on smoking cessation for three months, then we'll do your heart bypass. That doesn't happen. So it's only discrimination of people of size."

After about three hours the surgery was over. VinZant's mother, whose retirement plans are now intertwined with the cost of her daughter's surgery, was relieved to hear everything had gone well.

"Hi sweetheart," her mother said. "How are you doing? It's all over. Everything went great. No problems. No nothing with your liver. Everything is wonderful. You just rest."

'I Feel Wonderful'

A week and a half later, VinZant was ready to head home. At her final checkup, she had already lost 14 pounds, her diabetes was gone and she could walk without pain.

"I feel great, I feel wonderful. I feel healthier," she said.

When ABC News caught up with her outside the doctor's office along a beautiful stretch of California coastline, she said she was perplexed about her insurance company.

"I would hope that just seeing that my diabetes has gone away, that I'm not on my CPAP machine anymore, that I'm able to walk and not be stuck in a bed, that they would see that the surgery did help me and they would in turn pay their 80 percent."

But there will be no insurance coverage. Even so, in the span of one month her life has completely changed. She's can move around again and sees the possibility of a normal life for the first time in years.

The heavy burden of paying her parents back, painful as it is, just doesn't seem that bad compared to where she was before surgery.

"I will take care of it," she said. "Whatever I have to do. Sell my house. I'll do whatever it takes, get a job as soon as I get home. I'm ready."

She says her goal is to lose an additional 100 pounds, and with that take back her life. But at this rate, she may be thin long before she's out of debt.