Browns Summit, NC -- In an economy where many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, imagine a $10,000 medical bill or even $50,000. That is at the low end of the medical bills some patients are piling up.
A study in the American Journal of Medicine says most Americans are just one major illness away from bankruptcy. The report reveals that 62% of all bankruptcies are credited to medical bills.
It's a sad reality, especially for people who appear seemingly healthy and suddenly find out they have a terminal illness - as Sharon Ferrell did.
The then 40-year-old woman had a routine health check up in 2010.
In two years, she has gone from being a preschool teacher to homeless.
These days all she has to her name are medical bills.
"This one is for $23,319," she said as she opened a folder of hospital bills and spread them on a friend's kitchen table. She picked up another: "This one is $53,715."
The bills in front of her amount to $90,000 and that's not including her outstanding chemotherapy bills.
"I'm absolutely destitute. I am trying to get through churches now just to get clothes."
A cancer diagnosis took the 42-year-old's health first, and then her self esteem
"I have lost all my hair," she said.
And now, the illness has left her a lifetime of debt.
"My medical bills are just outrageous. And it's brought on so much stress that I have third stage hypertension right now."
Which means more medicine and more bills she can't afford...
"She has no money. She's struggling. I'm struggling," said David Edwards, a friend of Sharon who has taken her in.
Edwards says he would rather struggle with his finances than see Sharon go hungry and homeless -- as she was when he met her.
"I would be devastated to know that I would lose everything I have that I worked for and lost it all because of a sickness," he said.
Johnnie Vineyard, a certified consumer credit counseloy, says it's happening to more people than we'd like to believe. On average his clients come to him with medical bills starting around $20,000.
"It's never a question of if, it's a question of when the emergency will occur," Vineyard said. "Medical costs are so expensive, at least to where if you do need assistance you're stuck either making payments for the rest of your life or trying to figure out a way to actually survive."
In Sharon's case, she's lost everything.
"I lost my home, I lost my job, I lost my vehicle," she said.
Sharon says she lost her insurance when she lost her job and has not been able to find medical coverage since then.
She's hoping for donations of any kind to help her as she continues dealing with her illness.
You can reach her at 336-684-9545 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Meanwhile, Vineyard suggests planning ahead - even for medical emergencies.
At least two months of income in your savings account is a start but ideally, eight months to a year's worth is recommended.
Also, review your current insurance policy, make sure you know exactly what it covers and if there are any holes, correct them.
Some hospitals have financial experts in their billing departments who can help you with your debt as well.
Others have charity programs or can refer you to groups for specific diseases like diabetes that can help offset some of the costs of treatment.
And, it's always good practice to review your bill for mistakes.
Here are links to some local resources:
High Point Regional
Wake Forest Baptist Health