By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
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By Dianna Wray
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In late June, Bema says, they got temporary total disability benefits for Celester retroactive to December 1. He receives two-thirds of his average salary for the previous year, or about $500 a week from the insurer. She has been able to cut back to just two jobs: her full-time day job and some part-time billing on the side.
Attorney Fleishman expects the case to be decided sometime late this year or early in 2006, and at that point the administrative law judge will enter a ruling determining whether the insurance company will have to pay Celester. The payments right now are voluntary, he says.
Bema is back in touch with Joseph Johnson of AIG WorldSource (he returned a phone call from the Pressand referred all questions to his company's New York corporate spokesman), who is in charge of authorizing coverage for them for things like doctor's visits, physical therapy and medicines. She has asked for help in the home. She says Johnson said they had to have an assessment in the home by a case manager, which was done, but after three weeks, nothing has happened.
The care and love are obvious as she bathes her husband, soaping his head and body while he sits in the bathtub. She still catheterizes him, and the new routine of her life includes frequent doctor visits. The signs of wear are there in her voice. She needs some help. Occasionally she raises one finger in front of Celester. That means she's just one person, working as fast as she can.
Celester says he gets nothing but "a real low kind of static, like a broken speaker" from his cochlear implant. He wears the diapers less frequently now but still needs them for longer trips out, such as doctor's visits. He still navigates by rolling walker.
Doctors have said it'll be one and a half to three years before they can determine what he's really going to be like, Bema says.
Deposition testimony from medical experts was not encouraging.
Dr. Kelly Loeb of Central Texas Rehabilitation Medicine in Bryan, who saw Celester as an outpatient and who does physicals for the Department of Transportation, gave Celester a poor prognosis for returning to work as a truck driver.
Dr. Newton Jasper Coker of Houston, who examined Celester for his auditory problems, said Celester had no hearing, a complete loss at all levels. Even if the cochlear implant suddenly started working, Celester would not hear normally. Celester, he said, would not be able to ride a bike or perform any complex activities.
Dr. George Burnazian, an infectious disease specialist in Houston, said: "Well, I think that this man is, in my opinion, crippled by this episode."
Ginny Stegent, a registered nurse for 32 years, is a life-care planner for Med-Legal Services. Her job is to look at a disability and put a price tag on it. She interviewed the Halls five and a half months after he became ill.
"Mrs. Hall said he will speak of things that did not happen Mrs. Hall says he cries and feels he is shut off in a world by himself," Stegent testified. She recounted an episode in which Celester called his wife by cell phone to come back to the house. He didn't want her to leave.
"My husband's been through so much," Bema says. "This almost cost us everything we own. The only reason they're paying now is because I got an attorney."
She still has several relatives over in the Middle East, hanging on to civilian jobs. She says Celester told her that the Americans need to be gone from there.
"He said, 'We are going to a country that doesn't care anything about us. What I think is we need to pull out and let those people have their country back.' "
The overseas venture, Bema says, "was supposed to be all this money and tax-free" for them. Because Celester didn't stay the minimum 330 days outside the country, he loses the tax-free provision under U.S. law.
She married Celester because he was "helpful and very loving, a family man and people person." She talks often about the smile he always had.
These days he's become querulous and suspicious, frustrated and dependent on others. Bema says all she hears from his former employer and its representatives is that they want to get Celester back on his feet and back to work. "We're talking about somebody's life," she says in frustration.
It's clear, though, that the life they dreamed about, and the people they were once upon a time, aren't going to happen again. They're just trying to make the best of what they have left.