Editor’s note: The Casey and Alicia Walter family of Tooele is the chosen beneficiary of this year’s Transcript Bulletin Benefit Fund. They are in need of community help due to the family’s financial challenges resulting from the premature delivery of their daughter. Donations for the family will be accepted through Dec. 21.
If her Tinkerbell size doesn’t grab your heart, then the spark of life in her bright blue eyes certainly will.
And if you know little Zoey Walter’s story, that spark almost didn’t come to be. For the three-year-old daughter of Casey and Alicia Walter of Tooele arrived in this world not only premature, but severely underweight and undersized because of a rare, in-womb condition called Intrauterine Growth Restriction.
When Zoey was born in a most dramatic and unexpected way, she tipped the scale at just over a pound. But thanks to today’s modern medicine, miracles for even severely sick premature babies are a common occurrence.
However, that modern medicine comes at a high-dollar cost Zoey’s parents are dealing with today, as are many other young couples and families across America, and even despite having medical insurance.
Alicia, 29, was born and raised in Grantsville, and Casey, 30, was born and raised in Tooele. They started to date in 2007, fell in love and were married in 2009.
Their first child, Hayden, who will turn 10 years old next month, was a “no problem” pregnancy, Alicia said. He was born three weeks early and a little small, but was released from the hospital 48 hours later.
While pregnant with Zoey in 2015, Alicia said she struggled with constant back pain, something she didn’t experience while carrying Hayden. At times the pain was so severe, she couldn’t sleep at night.
Alicia had sought the services of a midwife and planned to deliver Zoey at home. Her due date was Dec. 15. On Oct. 5 — 30 weeks and five days into the pregnancy — Alicia had an ultrasound done. It was known then that Zoey was small in the womb, but it wasn’t a concern because Hayden was also small at the same time of maturation, Alicia said.
Later that evening, Alicia began to feel cramps, which she thought was odd. By early morning the next day she realized she was going into labor. She woke up Casey and they sped to Mountain West Medical Center.
And that early morning, their lives changed forever.
“We barely made it to the hospital,” Alicia said, remembering the intensity of the sudden labor. “We rushed there as fast as we could.”
“I ran every stop sign and stoplight, probably going 90 miles per hour,” Casey said.
While walking into the hospital’s maternity unit, Alicia said she realized she was about to give birth and crossed her legs. She made it into a delivery room while Casey went to find a nurse.
But that’s as far as she got.
“I didn’t make it to the bed and had to reach down and deliver her into my hands,” Alicia said. “She was just a little handful.”
Zoey was only 1 pound 8 ounces at birth, and she should have been close to 3 pounds at 30 weeks maturation, Alicia said.
“I delivered my baby into my hands and then handed her to a nurse,” Alicia said. “It was 5 a.m. and shift change, so there were two sets of doctors and nurses. It was crazy, it was chaos.”
Meanwhile, unaware that his wife had just given birth, Casey went to the car to get Hayden.
“When I came back into the room, I just looked and she was covered in blood, from her hands all the way down and she told me to leave instantly,” Casey said. But Alicia had good reason.
“He passes out when he sees blood,” Alicia said. She didn’t want to see him hit the floor.
“I thought there was something wrong with her [Zoey], that she didn’t make it,” Casey said. “So I freaked.”
Zoey was born in the amniotic sac, Alicia said, and had to be removed from it before vitals could be taken. Plus, Zoey’s extremely small size complicated efforts for the doctors and nurses.
“But she didn’t need to be intubated,” Alicia said. “She was breathing on her own. … She was even crying at birth.”
Zoey was immediately transported by helicopter fitted with newborn intensive care unit equipment to University Medical Center in Salt Lake City. And that’s when the Walter’s financial challenges began.
From Oct. 6, 2015, to Jan. 2, 2016, Zoey’s young life was spent at U-Med’s Newborn Intensive Care Unit. According to Alicia, except for reflux, Zoey didn’t have any major medical problems. Numerous tests were done on her, but they all came back negative.
Zoey just needed time — and food — to continue to grow until she was big and strong enough to come home.
Meanwhile, though, Alicia’s and Casey’s lives were flipped upside down. For the next 89 days, they lived the life of a couple wracked by worry with a newborn in intensive care. Except for four of those 89 days, Alicia spent every day with Zoey.
At the time, Casey was pursuing a career in law enforcement. He had a job with the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office, working at the Salt Lake County Detention Center.
But before Zoey was born, Casey transferred to Salt Lake County’s court system. Despite having been a long-standing employee with the Sheriff’s Office, he was still required to go on a mandatory 90-day probation period.
“After Zoey was born, I missed a lot of work because I had to be there for my family,” Casey said. Yet despite his situation, he was released from his new job at the end of the probation period.
Thankfully, he was insured by the Sheriff’s office when Zoey was born and through her 89 days in newborn intensive care.
But not long after Zoey came home, the Walter’s financial hardships began. Casey said the medical bills on Zoey totaled approximately $300,000. The health insurance company paid most of the tab, but Casey and Alicia faced a $35,000 bill.
Casey did get another job with Grease Monkey in Stansbury Park nearly two years ago, but his earnings are heavily garnished to pay back his family’s portion of the medical bills. Not long after Zoey came home, paying down on the medical bills took a toll.
The couple found themselves three months behind on their mortgage and had to rent out their home of 10 years to catch up. In the meantime, they lived with family. But the financial hits kept coming and they weren’t making enough income to cover them. Alicia had to let go of her car, and Casey had to sell his beloved ’05 Mustang.
Casey and Alicia said they looked into filing for bankruptcy, but chose not to. Casey said he anticipates his earnings will be garnished for the next five years until all of the medical bills are satisfied. In the meantime, they will struggle to cover all of their bills while living a humble lifestyle.
“It’s been really hard to go from stable, financially responsible adults to being labeled as irresponsible adults,” Alicia said. “We’ve always worked hard and lived within our means.”
She said collection agencies have even said to her and Casey that they should have been “better prepared” to handle the situation.
“How could we have been better prepared for that?” Alicia said about Zoey’s premature birth. She referred to the situation as living under a “black cloud.”
But while Alicia and Casey continue the struggle to make ends meet, Zoey continues to grow and gain weight. Except for being the size of child less than 24 months old, Zoey now weighs 20 pounds 6 ounces, Alicia said. And she is a happy three year old, dearly loved by her brother and parents.
Alicia said the Intrauterine Growth Restriction was never blamed for causing Zoey’s premature birth. She said it was just unexpected and part of the Lord’s work. It was her time to be born, she said.
Due to the Walter family’s financial challenges, they were selected as recipients of this year’s Transcript Bulletin Benefit Fund. Started in 1977, the fund’s purpose is to fill a unique community need. It is entirely funded by newspaper readers and citizens.
Donations for the family can be dropped off at the Transcript Bulletin’s business office at 58 N. Main St., Tooele by Dec. 21. They can also be mailed to: Transcript Bulletin Benefit Fund, P.O. Box 390, Tooele, Utah 84074.