Even though she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when she was 3 months old, Sarah Morris always considered herself lucky. "I've been blessed to be pretty healthy in spite of everything," she says. But in 2007, she found herself dragging for months and unable to break a fever of 103. The 31-year-old from Olympia, Washington, ended up in the hospital for two weeks.
Faced with large medical bills, Morris, who is single and self-employed, couldn't keep up with her other expenses and almost lost her house. "I tried to find someone who could help me make it through financially, and I was surprised to find that there wasn't any organization to do that, at least not locally," she says.
Morris was fortunate -- ultimately, her family was able to help her out. But she knew that others might not be as lucky. "I reached out to my cystic fibrosis community online and asked how other people do it," says Morris. "I found that most of us were putting medical costs on credit cards. People were even going without electricity in order to pay their bills."
Cystic fibrosis (CF) affects about 30,000 children and adults in the United States. It's an inherited disease that affects the lungs and digestive system, which can make breathing difficult and even cause life- threatening lung infections.
"Kids with CF are hospitalized an average of two times a year, for what we call a 'tune up,'" says Morris. The high dose of antibiotics costs about $3,500. Both children and adults with CF also usually need a monthly maintenance drug to thin out the mucus in their lungs, which costs about $2,300 a month. While Morris doesn't need the drug herself, she found out that some insurance companies only cover 50 percent, leaving many families struggling to come up with the difference every month.
"I knew that I had to do something to help them breathe a little easier," she says. So in October 2007, Breathe 4 Tomorrow was born. Morris threw herself into the foundation, getting it certified as a nonprofit and spreading the word. She had plenty of people asking for aid: People whose utilities were turned off, who needed gas money to get back and forth from the hospital, or who couldn't pay the mortgage. "When you've got a sick kid, the last thing you want to worry about is your bills piling up," says Morris. So she put together two local fund-raisers, a wine gala and a biannual comedy show. Slowly money began coming in through her events and private donations, and Morris was delighted to start giving it back.
Linda Vargo and her 16-year-old daughter, Brooke, were one of the first families to benefit. Vargo lives in Portland, but for four years she and Brooke have been traveling back and forth to a hospital in Seattle as they waited to see if she qualified for a much-needed lung transplant. "It got to the point where I couldn't work because I was taking care of Brooke and my credit cards were maxed out," Vargo says. "Breathe 4 Tomorrow stepped in and paid for our hotel and gave us gift certificates for gas and food. They were a miracle for us." In September, Brooke got her lung transplant.
Morris has now raised nearly $50,000 to help families across the country. Figuring out how to distribute their limited funds (and still find donors) is a challenge for Morris, but she's thrilled to be making a difference. "We paid the bill for one woman who got home from the hospital to find her gas shut off, leaving them with no heat or hot water," she says. "Hearing that relief in someone's voice -- it makes everything worth it."
Our Do Good Challenge
Raise money for cystic fibrosis research by signing up for a local walk-a-thon or fund-raiser. (To find one near you visit CFF.org.) Or go to breathe4tomorrow.org to donate to Morris's organization, which helps families across the U.S. You can also reach out to your local hospital to see if they'll accept gift cards for families who are struggling during a medical crisis.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2011.