After a second-trimester ultrasound revealed serious and potentially fatal health concerns for her unborn baby, Ashley Sanchez cried her way through the remainder of her pregnancy. Her doctors didn’t know if the baby boy would survive to full term. If he did, she says, they predicted he would be severely disabled.
Four agonizing months later, Migel was born and diagnosed with spina bifida. And, though his condition wasn’t as bad as expected, the implications of his disorder, both physically and financially, were massive. But, Ashley, a single mother of three, lacked the means to provide the care her son needed. So, acting on Migel’s behalf, she applied for supplemental security income benefits. But, she was denied.
Thinking it was a mistake, she applied again. Again, denied. Then came a third request and a third denial, with the Social Security Administration insisting that Migel was not disabled. Feeling hopeless and uncertain where to turn, Sanchez explained her predicament to Migel’s physician, Eric Levey at Kennedy Krieger Institute. That’s when she learned about Project HEAL (Health, Education, Advocacy, and Law), a partnership between the Maryland Center for Developmental Disabilities at Kennedy Krieger Institute and the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service.
“Project HEAL is an amazing testament to what happens when physicians and lawyers work together for patients and families,” says Maureen van Stone. “When we cooperate with one another, we can have a monumental impact on the lives of the families who trust us.” As director of Project HEAL, van Stone provides free advocacy and legal services to low-income families who face an array of issues, such as special education disputes, family law, or, as in the Sanchez case, problems with public benefits like Social Security. After meeting with the Sanchez family, van Stone instantly realized that Migel had a significant disability and required considerable medical care.
By November 2009, van Stone had been working the case for 18 months, and for Ashley, things were as bad as ever. That month, Migel was rushed to the emergency room with a 105- degree fever and a severe ear infection. Then, while Ashley sat in the hospital with her son, panicked and emotional, the phone rang. It was then, at the side of her sick child with the crowded emergency room as a backdrop, that she got the news that would change their lives and provide Migel access to the care and resources he needed.
“Maureen was on the other line screaming and happy,” she recalls. “She kept saying, ‘We won the appeal! I just got the judge’s decision! We did it Ashley!’”