A Sandy Springs couple who have been stuck inside a Mexican hospital for more than a week are coming home soon with a little help from filmmaker Tyler Perry.
What started out as a dream vacation for Stephen Johnson and his fiancée Tori Austin turned into a nightmare when Johnson fell ill on the couple’s cruise.
The two sailed out of Galveston, Texas, on Nov. 11, Austin told AJC.com. Days later, her fiance went into diabetic shock.
“I thought he just had motion sickness because he had never been on a cruise before,” Austin said. “I was like, ‘Quit being a baby. You’re OK.’”
But when it came time for the couple to get off the ship and explore Mexico, Johnson couldn’t do it.
He went to the ship’s infirmary, where doctors told him he had pancreatitis, a kidney infection and that his glucose levels were through the roof. They told him he needed to be hospitalized, so last Thursday, Johnson checked into the intensive care unit at a hospital in Progreso, Mexico.
Carnival made arrangements for the couple to rejoin the cruise five days later, Austin said.
When it came time to check out of the hospital, however, the two were not allowed to leave without paying their $14,000 hospital bill in full.
According to Austin, the hospital administrator refused to sign her fiance’s release form without getting the money upfront.
“I asked how much the bill was and told them we’d figure it out when we got home,” Austin said. “She said, ‘Oh, no. It has to be paid now.’”
She said the hospital’s staff and local police physically barred them from leaving the hospital on multiple occasions. One time, she said, the hospital administrator forced them back inside the building with a lid she pulled off a trashcan.
"I appreciate them saving my life, but they can't hold me captive,” Johnson told Channel 2 Action News in an interview this week. “That's not right.”
On Friday, a spokeswoman for Centro Medico Americano hospital insisted that Johnson isn’t being held captive, but that he’s not allowed to leave because he is still too sick to travel.
“He arrived in grave condition,” the spokeswoman told AJC.com. “Aside from his kidney failure and dialysis, he also has other problems and had to be treated by the cardiologist and other specialists ... Right now, he is not in a condition to even travel on a commercial plane. He would have to fly in an ambulance.”
She also said the hospital accepts private health insurance and credit cards.
“When the service is done, the patient has to pay,” she said. “We are a private hospital, and here and all parts of the world, payment has to be collected.”
Austin said her fiance does not have private insurance and that the limit on their credit cards is less than $14,000. Before their cruise, Johnson didn’t even know he had diabetes, the couple told Channel 2.
“We’ve never been in this situation before. We’re used to the United States, where if you don’t have insurance they’ll bill you and we can pay it,” Austin said. “It’s not that we’re trying to get out of paying the bill. We just don’t have the money right now.”
On the U.S. State Department’s website, U.S. citizens are warned that an unexpected hospitalization overseas “can be a difficult experience.”
“Hospitals in Mexico generally require payment upfront for services rendered and will place holds on credit cards if a patient is admitted,” the website reads. “Some private U.S. insurance companies pay for medical care overseas, but usually on a reimbursable basis, meaning that you will need to pay first and request reimbursement later.”
The couple have reached out to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico and thousands of dollars were raised stateside to get them out of the hospital and back home.
In a statement Friday morning, a spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs confirmed they were looking into the matter, saying the welfare of and safety of U.S. citizens traveling abroad is one of their top priorities.
“We can confirm a U.S. citizen is being treated at a hospital in Progreso,” the bureau said in a statement. “On November 21, a consular officer visited the U.S. citizen in the hospital. We are monitoring the situation closely.”
Moments after the statement was released, representatives for Tyler Perry told Channel 2 that he would cover the couple’s hospital bill and fly them home.
“He said, ‘I’m going to pay your bill and I’m gonna bring you home,’” Johnson told Channel 2 after receiving a phone call from Perry. “He is truly saving my life. He is rescuing me.”
Perry, who this week hosted the Democratic presidential candidates for a debate at his Atlanta studio, is no stranger to charitable giving.
In March, he paid for the funeral of an Alpharetta mother of four who was shot and killed outside a bank. He also offered to cover the cost of the family’s rent for six months.
Perry is also typically quick to donate money to areas ravaged by natural disasters.
More tests on Johnson were conducted Friday afternoon as nurses continued to care for him and provide meals to both him and Austin, the hospital official said.
It’s unclear how long it may take to get them back to Atlanta, but the couple will likely have to remain at the hospital through the weekend.
— Please return to AJC.com for updates.
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