Shriners: World-class medical care at no cost to victims

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   You see them standing at major intersections in their bejeweled burgundy-colored stack hats with streaming tassels, pushing tabloid-size newspapers. You drop a dollar or two in the bucket and lay the paper on the dashboard so you can make it through the next roadblock without feeling guilty.
   They're Shriners. Scooter-riding, belly-dancing folks who clown it up at annual parades through downtown Elizabethton. But they also have a serious side. And few may recognize the good they do for thousands of children throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico.
   Since 1922, Shriners Hospitals have been healing burns, providing artificial limbs, and helping children with spinal cord injuries relearn the basic skills of everyday life -- all at no cost to children or parents.
   "We own the finest equipment money can buy, but we don't own a cash register," said Howard Ensor, president of Elizabethton Shrine Club.
   This year, the Shrine of North America has a budget of $597 million. However, of that amount, roughly $18 a second is spent at 22 hospitals across North America.
   According to Mike Sellers, paper sale chairman for the Elizabethton Shrine Club, "We probably are the only organization that dedicates about 99 percent of our funds to treatment."
   Hospitals in Boston, Cincinnati, Galveston and Sacramento are the major centers for burn research. Facilities in Montreal, Portland, Sacramento and Tampa are focal points for neuromusculoskeletal research. And at Shriners Hospitals in Philadelphia and St. Louis, research is conducted into spinal cord injury and metabolic bone diseases.
   "Basically, that's what we're all about. That's the whole reason behind Shriners being Shriners," said Sellers.
   One week a year is dedicated to fund-raising to support the hospitals. May 13-20 will be devoted to the annual paper-sale crusade in Carter County as well as surrounding counties represented through Jericho Temple. Each county has a goal they try to meet. In Carter County, that goal is $30,000.
   "Fortunately, the people of Carter County are very, very good to us. We make our goals almost without exception," said Sellers.
   On Aug. 13, 2001, 13-year-old E.J. Crowe received a severe electrical shock after latching on to a high-voltage wire atop an apartment building. Had it not been for Shriners Hospital in Cincinnati, E.J. might have lost both his hands.
   After being injured, E.J. was found standing on the sidewalk near his home by a nurse who called 911. He was transported to Johnson City Medical Center where his burns were assessed.
   "They realized real quick that it was a little more than what was going to be able to be handled here, so they started getting in touch with the Shriners Hospital in Cincinnati," said Gwen Crowe, E.J.'s mother. "We're grateful they acted as quick as they did." About three hours later, E.J. and his mother were on their way to the burn center.
   "Everything is scheduled for parents and the patient," Sellers said. "We have vans which are purchased and dedicated to transporting them to the hospitals. Shriners escort them to and from those appointments and stay with them all during that time. Each and every time they have a follow-up, the same type of scenario takes place."
   "If it's a real bad case, within 45 minutes we'll have a helicopter with a full staff of people on it ready to go," said Ensor.
   By the time E.J. reached Cincinnati, Crowe said, "The swelling was so bad ... that just a couple more hours would have meant maybe even losing his left hand."
   From Aug. 13 until Oct. 12, when E.J. was discharged, he underwent numerous surgeries and skin grafts. A family photo album packed with pictures shows a small boy with hands wrapped in bandages about half the size of basketballs. Later pictures show a swollen left hand attached to E.J.'s side, where skin was peeled back in an attempt to grow new skin tissue.
   Crowe said Shriners Hospital personnel moved a bed into the emergency room so she could stay with E.J. "Once he was doing a little better, they moved him into another room that had an actual bed built-in to the room.
   "There was never anything said about a bill. They even offered me money to eat on while I was there," Crowe said. "We had a lot of donations from our church and people that had read the story about E.J."
   When first was released from the hospital, E.J. had to return to Cincinnati every two weeks for follow-up care. He now goes to the clinic every two to three months. Each time, he is provided medical supplies to last until his next visit. "And they're like, 'If you need more, just call us and let us know.' Everything that pertains to his injury is taken care of," Crowe said.
   E.J.'s right hand appears normal except for a few scars where he had skin grafts. He undergoes therapy three times a week in Elizabethton for his left hand.
   "He's lost a lot of tissue but he can build a lot of it back with enough therapy," Crowe said. "It will be a little smaller than his right hand but as far as use, he can gain all of the use back with enough therapy. He has a couple more surgeries and they want to go ahead and work on his tendons. They were just blown out in the shock."
   As E.J. grows, his mother said, he will have to return for relief surgeries. "Once the skin is grafted on, it ceases to grow. It has to be stretched. And as he grows it will tighten up and he may have to have a little more done. His left hand is worse. It was the one that had the most damage done to it." There is an eight-month waiting list for relief surgery, she said.
   E.J. says Shriners Hospital was "fun," except for school work.
   "They have a couple of teachers there and they go to school from 9 to 11 a.m. And if for some reason he didn't want to go to the classroom, they came to the room and helped him with his studies," Crowe said. Once released, E.J.'s grades were forwarded to T.A. Dugger Junior High, where he is a student.
   At Shriners Hospital, the children are entertained by clowns, dance troupes, outings to the zoo and other activities. "They have birthday parties and when a child has been there more than a month, they throw them a going-away party," Crowe said. "Volunteers come in and will just unhook their beds and drag them out and park them out at the nurses station and play cards and video games. It's just amazing. Halloween, they dress them up in costumes and let them go trick-or-treating at the nurses stations and other rooms."
   The children are not released until parents learn to dress their wounds and take care of them properly at home. The age limit at Shriners Hospital is 18, however, once children are admitted as patients, they receive follow-up care indefinitely.
   Locally, Shriners support children in five counties. "We have three vans and a bus and there's hardly a day goes by that we don't go to the hospital," Ensor said.
   Masons who would like to assist with next week's paper sales are asked to contact Ensor at 542-9202, or Sellers, at 926-2629.
   "The biggest problem we have is getting enough people out to help us with the roadblock," Ensor said. "We could increase the paper sales probably another $5,000 to $10,000 if we could get enough people."