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mmorris

Since joining the Daily Journal staff in 1996, I’ve covered crime, courts, education, elections, Tupelo city hall, fashion, features and health care. I’m married to Daily Journal staff writer M. Scott Morris, and we have two children, a dog and a cat. I’m often inspired by the passion of our medical professionals and the determination of individuals facing down serious health issues. I love my work because I learn something new every day that can help my family and Daily Journal readers lead fuller, healthier lives. In the past two years, I’ve taken charge of my own health and lost 85 pounds.

Stories Written by Michaela Morris

lifestyle_religionBy Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

Tupelo egg hunters will have their choice of east, central and west for their annual Easter egg-stravaganzas today.

Tupelo churches are hosting trio of community Easter egg hunts at city parks with 54,000 plastic eggs up for grabs.

“We do it as a service and outreach to the community,” said Ben Wheeler, student minister at Tupelo Free Will Baptist Church which hosts the hunt and festivities at Veterans Park starting at 10 a.m.

Along with the hunts, all of the events will feature inflatables, games and food for the hunters and their families.

The Orchard and West Jackson Baptist Church have teamed up to host the egg hunt at Ballard Park. Event coordinator Julie Henderson will have 100 volunteers helping. The event starts at 10 a.m. with the egg hunt at 10:30.

First Baptist Church will have a free community egg hunt following its Resurrection Run for the fourth year at Robins Field, next to Church Street School. The races will start at 8:30 and 9:30; the egg hunt at 10 a.m. followed by a free barbecue lunch.

“The kids love it,” said Chad Grayson, senior pastor.

The New Albany Civitans also will host a free community egg hunt at 10 a.m. today at the parking long the river in downtown New Albany.

“We hope to have a good turnout,” said club president Barbara Cobb.

michaela.morris@journalinc.com

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com Faith, family and friends have helped the Burks family of Saltillo – Bryson, from left, Brett and Chris – pull through two medical crises – Brett's kidney failure and Bryson's conversion disorder.

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Faith, family and friends have helped the Burks family of Saltillo – Bryson, from left, Brett and Chris – pull through two medical crises – Brett’s kidney failure and Bryson’s conversion disorder.

By Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

One extended major health crisis can tax any family’s resources.

Two at the same time can swamp even the most solid family.

The Burks family of Saltillo has been fighting for their lives – first with Brett Burks’ kidney failure and then 10-year-old Bryson’s conversion disorder – a rare condition where psychological stress manifests physically. In Bryson’s case, it was seizures.

“A year ago, we didn’t know how long Brett would live,” said wife and mom Chris Burks. “Six months ago, we didn’t know what was wrong with Bryson.”

Faith, friends and family helped them pull through their darkest days. In the thick of the crisis, it was hard to take comfort in kind words about waiting for God’s plan to reveal itself.

“It is a journey; it is difficult,” Chris Burks said. “It’s not all grace and poise.”

The turning point for both father and son came in January in Birmingham. The medical staff at University of Alabama Birmingham Health System coordinated the resources both father and son needed to begin the journey home.

“Within those two days, everything fell into place,” Chris Burks said.

No warning

The first battle began with little warning. In the fall of 2012, Brett Burks began having headaches and blurry vision. He explained them away as the function of the interrupted sleep cycle that comes with working nights and having 40-year-old eyes that needed reading glasses.

When he went for an annual chest X-ray – a routine part of managing his asthma – the imaging staff became alarmed at his blood pressure – it was 220/128. Anything above 180/110 is considered a medical crisis

“They were really concerned,” said Brett Burks, who had no previous problems with his blood pressure. “They wouldn’t let me drive.”

Brett Burks ended up in the emergency room that night to get his blood pressure down. One test indicated his kidneys were not functioning well. A follow-up visit to the neurologist revealed his kidney function was down to 30 percent.

“We were scared, but not totally freaked out,” Chris Burks said. “You can live with 30 percent kidney function for a long time.”

But despite best efforts with diet and medication, Brett Burks’ kidney function kept slowly losing ground. As they were making preparations for an orderly transition to dialysis when the time came, he took a drastic turn for the worse and had to have emergency surgery to make a temporary connection. It had only been three months since his kidney crisis began. Dialysis kept him alive, but he continued to lose ground, finding it difficult to eat.

“Some people wait seven to 10 years to get a kidney,” Chris Burks said. “He wasn’t going to make it seven years.”

They began the process of getting on transplant lists. Chris Burks was ruled out as a potential kidney donor. Four friends, most of them from their Harrisburg Baptist Church family, volunteered to be tested as living donors. Each test uncovered hidden health problems for the potential donors.

“It was a roller coaster,” Chris Burks said.

A fifth volunteer, Chris Burks’ cousin, Karen Tidwell of Memphis, made it through, but wasn’t a perfect match for Brett Burks. The best bet was to be a part of a living donor chain, where Tidwell’s kidney would go to someone else, and another living donor would help Brett.

And then

Bryson had been a trooper through his dad’s illness, his mom said. There was no 9th birthday party because his December birthday fell during his dad’s dialysis crisis. He would finish his homework in the car while waiting for Brett Burks to finish his five-hour, thrice weekly dialysis sessions. But it still was hard for him. He groused about the bland dialysis diet the family was eating.

“Bryson was scared and worried that his dad was going to die,” Chris Burks said.

Bryson had been through one medical mystery. In kindergarten, he began having uncontrollable ticks. The jerking got bad enough, he stopped eating with utensils for a time. After ruling out a brain tumor and other life-threatening conditions, he was eventually diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, a largely benign condition that can be managed. The family was watching closely to see if Bryson would develop the more severe form of Tourette’s during his teen years.

In October 2013, then 9-year-old Bryson woke with an excruciating headache. Then he began having seizures. He spent months away from fourth-grade classes at Saltillo Elementary with repeated trips to emergency rooms and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis. The seizures were so violent his mom ended up pushing their couches together to create a safe space for Bryson.

They ruled out epilepsy, medicated him for migraines and gave him strong narcotics to try to keep him calm. The tentative diagnosis was conversion disorder. In Bryson’s case, the anxiety was manifesting in seizures.

“His mind is playing tricks on his body,” Chris Burks said. “But it’s not something he controlled.”

For weeks, Chris Burks resisted the idea that Bryson needed inpatient psychiatric treatment. No one else could calm him the way she could. Sessions at the Child Advocacy Play Therapy Institute at the University of Mississippi helped, but Bryson was having multiple seizures a day, lasting from five minutes to an hour and a half.

On Dec. 18, the day before his 10th birthday, Bryson told his mom the bad feeling was growing inside of him that usually signaled a seizure was on the way. The seizure never came, but the feeling kept growing.

“I just want to die,” he told his mom and his pediatrician.

In consultation with Bryson’s pediatrician, they tried to find a facility. But because of his seizures, inpatient adolescent psychiatric facilities couldn’t take him. After searching through all possible resources, they connected with UAB and Alabama Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. A neurologist was going to evaluate them, and there was a UAB physician working on a fellowship focused on conversion disorder. The two-day evaluation was set for Jan. 8 and 9.

Two days

The first half of the 48-hour observation at Children’s Hospital definitively ruled out epilepsy and confirmed the conversion disorder.

“‘We’re going to find you help here in Birmingham and come back with a plan,’” the doctors told her, Chris Burks said. “That was the turning point for Bryson, when he believed ‘I’m going to be OK.’”

At the same time, the phone was ringing in Saltillo. UAB’s transplant program was calling. The living donor chain was coming together. Brett Burks’ transplant was set for the end of the month.

Chris Burks went back to Bryson’s doctors with a conundrum – how to take care of Bryson and Brett. The solution was to move the whole family to Birmingham. They would stay in UAB townhouses while Brett was hospitalized for the transplant and while Bryson received intensive outpatient therapy. They made arrangements for Bryson to continue his school work so he wouldn’t fall behind.

“We’re going to help you get your family better,” the medical team told Chris Burks.

The transplant on Jan. 28 went well, although the recovery process hasn’t been without its ups and downs. Brett Burks was discharged from the hospital Feb. 5, but remained in Birmingham for follow-up until early March.

Bryson’s doctors took him off all the medicine and changed how his family responded to his seizures. Trying to comfort Bryson during the seizures was unintentionally reinforcing the conversion disorder. They also worked with him on strategies to manage his ticks with Tourette’s syndrome. In mid-March, Bryson was able to return to school. His tutors at home and in Birmingham had kept him on track with his fourth-grade class.

“Through this all, he’s stayed on the honor roll,” Chris Burks said. Giving and receiving

Through their odyssey, the Burkses have been regularly overwhelmed with the outpouring of good wishes and support from their friends, neighbors, church family and strangers. Cards have come from across town and across the country with encouragement.

“It’s been indescribable,” said Chris Burks, thumbing through a pile of handwritten cards from a local church.

The financial burden has been extremely difficult to manage. Chris Burks had been preparing for a job hunt when her husband got sick. They’ve been able to maintain disability insurance through his employer – which has been an essential lifeline for the medical insurance coverage.

“Our goal is to get back to work,” Chris Burks said. “We want to be normal again.”

But the family doesn’t have that happy ending yet.

The best medicine for the sense of helplessness has been finding ways to give back during their journey. They advocate for the Kidney Foundation of Mississippi. Bryson spoke at the Regional Rehabilitation Center telethon and a fundraising luncheon in support of the Children’s Harbor, where he received tutoring. Moved by a homeless woman in Birmingham, Bryson and his mom make regular stops at a Birmingham park to hand out snacks donated by their Facebook family.

“What if that’s God giving you chances to help someone?” he asked his mom as he made the case for helping that woman and others.

Bryson said he just wanted to share the hope that helped him get through with other kids facing down the dark days.

“It’s going to get better,” he said. “Life isn’t always going to be that hard. God’s always going to be with them.”

PACE

PACE

By Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

Longtime golfer and Tupelo gastroenterologist Dr. Sam Pace wants more people teeing off against cancer.

The honorary chairman for the Take A Swing at Cancer Tournament has been fighting a reoccurrence of his colon cancer since July with chemotherapy.

“It gives me the drive to do anything I can,” Pace said.

The annual tournament, which will be held May 19 at Old Waverly in West Point, is the single biggest fundraiser for the NMMC Cancer Patient Assistance Fund.

Each year the fund helps patients keep going in the fight against cancer, assisting with pain and anti-nausea medications, nutritional supplements and transportation to treatment. In 18 years, the tournament has raised well over $1 million.

Pace said he is grateful that he’s had minimal side effects from the chemotherapy and that he has such a strong support system with his wife, Tupelo internist Dr. Mary Pace, his family, his medical partners and friends. But some have very difficult time through treatment, and many don’t have a robust support network.

“Our efforts in the Take a Swing at Cancer tournament mean even more to these people,” Pace said. “We become their support. The money we raise eases their burden.”

On May 19, the main tournament will have morning and afternoon flights. The cost for the four-person scramble is $250 or $1,000 a team.

This year, there will be a Sunday afternoon Medal Play tournament, open to teams of four. The additional entry fee includes accommodations at Old Waverly and dinner in addition to the golf.

For non-golfers, there will be a Corks & Canvases painting party event on May 19 during the afternoon flight hosted by Marcia Bryan and Mary Margaret Case.

Brochure and registration forms are available at www.nmhs.net/hcf_take_a_swing.php. For more information, call (662) 377-3613.

Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com Joannah Ballard, right, leads the children in a short dance to get them ready for their different runs at the first Boerner Be Wild fun day at Ballard Park last year.

Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Joannah Ballard, right, leads the children in a short dance to get them ready for their different runs at the first Boerner Be Wild fun day at Ballard Park last year.

By Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Wellness will go a little bit wild on April 19.

The Boerner Be Wild Fitness Challenge, sponsored by the Healthy Tupelo Task Force, will dare participants to run, jump, flip tires and climb walls on a 17-station course set up around the North Mississippi Medical Center Community Walking Track at the intersection of Madison and Garfield streets in Tupelo.

The challenge, designed to be tougher than a Warrior Dash, will end with a surprise, said NMMC Wellness Center fitness supervisor Edwin Crenshaw.

“You will get a little wet,” Crenshaw said.

The fitness challenge honors the late community and fitness advocate Hank Boerner, who died unexpectedly in December 2012. Boerner served as the NMMC Wellness Center director and co-chairman of the Healthy Tupelo Task Force.

“He was all about making fitness available to anybody, not just athletes,” said Liz Dawson, director of NMMC Community Health, who served on the task force with Boerner.

The proceeds from the event will be distributed through the Healthy Tupelo Task Force for projects to educate youth on the importance of physical fitness. Boerner Be Wild events last year raised $10,000. The task force has already made its first grant of $500 to support the Boern to Run kids races, which will be held April 25 at Fairpark.

The Boerner Be Wild event runs from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Participants will be able to choose their start time based on the order of registration. Children’s activities will be available. Cash prizes will be given for first, second and third places in men’s and women’s divisions.

Early registration fee is $25; onsite registration will be available for $35 the day of the event.

michaela.morris@journalinc.com

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TO REGISTER

Boerner Be Wild registration forms are available at Tupelo City Hall, Tupelo Parks and Recreation, Longtown Medical Park, NMMC Wellness Center and Tupelo Aquatic Center for the April 19 event.

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com Six weeks ago, Rachel Cobb was the second Mississippian and first woman to receive a kidney-pancreas transplant at University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Six weeks ago, Rachel Cobb was the second Mississippian and first woman to receive a kidney-pancreas transplant at University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

By Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Rachel Cobb is six weeks into a new life without diabetes or dialysis.

The 30-year-old Tupelo woman went through a kidney-pancreas transplant Feb. 25 at University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

“This is such a gift,” said Cobb, who lived with Type I diabetes for 22 years and endured a year and a half of dialysis while she waited for a transplant.

Cobb was the second person and the first woman to go through the kidney-pancreas transplant in Mississippi at UMMC. Implementing kidney-pancreas transplants was the final goal of the initial plan re-establishing the medical center’s abdominal transplant program.

“We’re really happy to be offering this surgery in Mississippi so patients don’t have to travel out of state,” said Dr. Mark Earl, Cobb’s transplant surgeon.

The kidney-pancreas transplant carries increased risk, Earl said. The pancreas is a finicky organ and relatively few are available for transplant – 10 to 12 a year in Mississippi. However, adding the pancreas to the kidney transplant for people with Type I diabetes and end stage renal disease greatly improves the odds for the transplanted kidney.

“It has a dramatic impact on their quality of life,” Earl said. “They’ve been sick so long … it’s like a new world opens up.”

Fighting for life

For Cobb, diabetes has been a fight, especially in her teens and early 20s. She remembers passing out at Pontotoc High School and in the Walmart parking lot. She was hospitalized for infections and diabetic coma. Diabetic retinopathy threatened to take her eyesight, leading to a series of surgeries.

“There’s so many times that I’ve almost died,” Cobb said.

The fight for her kidneys began in 2010 when she was pregnant with her son Jackson. It prompted her to get deeply serious about managing her diabetes. With the help of Tupelo nephrologist Dr. Ken Kellum, she was able to hold the line on her kidney function through her pregnancy.

“Every time we saw her, her kidney function got a little worse,” Kellum said. “Unfortunately there’s no medicine to reverse the damage.”

Cobb was able to delay going on dialysis until her son was a toddler. For a year and a half, she went through the four-and-a-half hour sessions three to four times a week.

“I took lemons and made lemonade,” Cobb said. “I met a lot of wonderful people through dialysis. If it wasn’t for the techs and nurses at dialysis, I wouldn’t have been able to get to transplant.”

During the hours of dialysis – four and a half-hour sessions, three or four days a week, Cobb took college courses online. Her goal is to become a nurse working with people with diabetes.

“This disease has been such a burden in my life, but I can learn from the negative things and inspire others,” Cobb said.

Her family – especially fiancé Thomas Clark, her mother Regina Monts and grandfather Harold Hill – has wrapped around her during the journey. Her church family has been an incredible source of prayer and support.

This past Sunday marked six weeks since the surgery, a significant milestone on the road to full recovery. She’s had a few hiccups as the UMMC team fine tuned her medications, but “there’s no sign of rejection,” said Cobb, who sings the praises of her transplant team.

Although she no longer has to take insulin shots or spend hours on dialysis each week, she still has to carefully monitor her blood sugar to track the function of her new pancreas, and watch her blood pressure to make sure her new kidney is protected.

These days, she takes 28 pills each day including immune-suppressing medications to prevent rejection, antifungals and antibiotics to protect against infections as well as blood pressure medications to protect her kidneys.

“It’s definitely a different routine,” Cobb said.

Cobb said she feels an incredible debt to the family of her organ donor who made the generous decision in the face of their personal tragedy. She hopes to meet them someday.

“My heart goes out to that family,” Cobb said. “I want to be a part of remembering that person.”

michaela.morris@journalinc.com

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com Tupelo Physical Therapist Joe Elmer using dry needling technique to stimulate trigger points to address Wendy Martin's chronic neck pain. He is one of 15 physical therapists in Mississippi certified to use the technique.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Tupelo Physical Therapist Joe Elmer using dry needling technique to stimulate trigger points to address Wendy Martin’s chronic neck pain. He is one of 15 physical therapists in Mississippi certified to use the technique.

By Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

Muscles have their own logic.

Where it hurts may not be the source of the problem.

Pain in the arm could come from the chest. Headache or chest pain could be originating in the trapezius muscle that stretches across the upper back. These trigger points inside the muscles can become sensitized, turning into hard knots that keep the pain coming.

Tupelo physical therapist Joe Elmer is using dry needling as an effective tool in treating trigger points. He’s one of 15 Mississippi physical therapists who are certified to use the technique.

“It’s been around for a while,” Elmer said. “It’s proving to be a very effective treatment.”

Dry needling developed separately from traditional Chinese acupuncture, although both modalities use solid needles. The dry needling technique, which is also called intramuscular stimulation, is based on trigger points first described in the 1940s by cardiologist Dr. Janet Travell, who started researching the phenomenon of referred pain from heart attacks that radiates into the arm. Acupuncture developed over centuries in China and is based on concepts of meridians and energy flow through the body.

Knotted up

Trigger points in muscles in and around joints can produce pain that mimics common, painful conditions, Elmer said. A portion of the muscle becomes sensitized from an injury. The injury heals, but a hard knot persists in the muscle. A chemical builds up along with the knot, creating a persistent loop of pain.

Elmer pinpoints the knotted trigger point and uses a thin, solid needle to stimulate the knot. He watches for a twitch response in the muscle and listens to his patients, who will tell him when he’s hit the source of the trouble.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com Elmer locates knots deep in the muscles that correspond to the areas where Martin experiences chronic pain. Several months of dry needling treatment have allowed Martin to greatly decrease the amount of medication she needs to manage her chronic pain connected to several trauma injuries.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Elmer locates knots deep in the muscles that correspond to the areas where Martin experiences chronic pain. Several months of dry needling treatment have allowed Martin to greatly decrease the amount of medication she needs to manage her chronic pain connected to several trauma injuries.

“The needle itself releases the chemical,” Elmer said. “It seems to release like lactic acid.”

The dry needling technique allows Elmer to go much deeper than manual massage.

“This is one tool,” Elmer said. “We usually do it in combination with a lot of other things,” such as range of motion and strengthening work.

In conjunction with other forms of therapy, Elmer finds dry needling can be an effective treatment for a number of chronic pain conditions, including headaches, neck and shoulder pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, low back pain, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis and myofascial pain syndrome.

The needles themselves don’t hurt, Elmer said. Manipulating the trigger points is usually uncomfortable for patients, but not as painful as the condition they are seeking relief from. Patients typically report being sore for 30 minutes to 24 hours after a treatment.

For most of Elmer’s patients, dry needling is done as a course of six to eight sessions to treat an acute problem or three to four months for chronic issues.

Dry needling isn’t a technique to use on acute injuries that are still healing, Elmer said. If muscles are still swollen, it’s too soon to use the technique. Although the needles are sterile and Elmer uses a clean technique, he would also avoid using dry needling during the post-surgical healing period.

Dry needling would not be indicated for people with active infections and those with bleeding disorders. Its use would be limited to specific areas in people who are taking blood thinners.

Success story

Dry needling has been an important tool for Wendy Martin’s fight against chronic pain. Martin has been through multiple car wrecks during her life and had two cervical spine fusions. Over the past few years, the pain had gotten so bad, she had started slipping into severe depression. Her doctor referred her for physical therapy, and during her treatment, the therapists suggested dry needling to treat multiple trigger points.

After her first visit, she was extremely sore, but the second night, she was able to sleep through the night – a significant improvement for her.

Martin’s ongoing problems are so severe, she gets dry needle treatments each week. It has allowed her to continue working and get back to the things she enjoys, including gardening, jewelry making and archery.

“I’m less medicated than I’ve been in 10 years,” Martin said.

lifestyle_healthnewsBy Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Thousands crossed the finish line in October, but the money raised by the 2013 Komen North Mississippi Race for the Cure is beginning a new race against breast cancer.

The North Mississippi affiliate board announced $135,000 in grants to 10 organizations to provide screening programs to the medically underserved and community breast health education.

Access Family Health Services will use its $12,000 grant to provide screening and education for its patients in Tupelo, Smithville, Tremont and Houlka. It’s the third year the community health centers have received a Komen grant.

“It’s allowed us to make our funds go farther,” said Marilyn Sumerford, Access Family Health executive director. Other grants announced Tuesday include:

• $32,500 to Baptist Memorial Healthcare Foundation to provide mammograms at hospitals in New Albany, Booneville, Columbus and Oxford.

• $25,000 to NMMC Breast Care Center, Tupelo, to provide mammograms and education programs.

• $26,703 to Sisters Network, Tupelo, to provide mammograms and education programs.

• $15,000 to Antone Tannehill Good Samaritan Free Clinic, Tupelo, to provide mammograms.

• $10,000 to Columbus-Lowndes Free Medical Clinic to provide screening mammograms.

• $6,500 to Magnolia Regional Health Center Foundation, Corinth, for a breast cancer education program.

• $1,000 to Lift Inc., Tupelo, to provide mammogram assistance.

• $3,500 to NMMC-West Point, to provide mammograms.

• $2,797 to NMMC-Iuka, to provide mammograms.

michaela.morris@journalinc.com

lifestyle_healthnewsBy Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Health insurance shoppers kept Northeast Mississippi organizations busy with last-minute sign-ups on Monday.

“Today is extremely busy with walk-ins and appointments,” said Melissa Kuykendall, certified enrollment counselor with Access Family Health in Tupelo.

Other Northeast Mississippi organizations offering in-person assistance, like CATCH Kids in Tupelo and Gilmore Regional Medical Center in Amory, also reported an uptick in people looking for help with insurance sign-up ahead of the deadline.

Healthcare.gov reported record traffic with 1.2 million users as of noon Monday, and 125,000 people on the site at one time. The heavy volume put the system under strain and prevented some from being able to process their applications.

The official open enrollment period for the federal health insurance exchange ended at midnight Monday, but anyone who has attempted to apply will have two weeks to complete enrollment.

Additionally, anyone with a major life change – such as a change in employment, marriage or the birth of a child – has a 60-day period to apply for coverage through the exchange for the rest of the year, Kuykendall said.

People who don’t have credible insurance face penalties on their 2015 taxes next year, although those who couldn’t access affordable insurance are exempt. The insurance can come through employers, the private marketplace or public programs. However, for Mississippians, the federal health insurance marketplace is the only place to access income-based subsidies.

As of mid-March, about 32,000 Mississippians had enrolled in coverage through the state’s federally-run website.

michaela.morris@journalinc.com

lifestyle_healthnewsBy Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

TUPELO – It’s crunch time for folks considering health insurance.

March 31 is the last day for open enrollment in the Health Insurance Marketplace, where people who don’t receive health insurance through employers can access plans and apply for federal subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

“We hope this last week we can get as many as we can signed up,” said Valerie Long, executive director of CATCH Kids, which has trained navigators available at its Tupelo office to assist with the health insurance exchange.

Mid-March enrollment numbers show 28,500 Mississippians are among the 5 million Americans who have enrolled through the health insurance marketplaces since Oct. 1. Updated numbers are due to be released today in Jackson.

Investigating options through healthcare.gov or making an appointment for in-person assistance doesn’t obligate anyone to purchase health insurance.

“I’m encouraging people to ask questions,” said Melissa Kuykendall, Access Family Health’s certified enrollment counselor in Tupelo. “It’s better to get the whole picture.”

It’s important for people to consider not only the monthly premium, but the deductibles and copays that affect how much they have to pay out of pocket. The sliding scale subsidies are available to a wide range of lower and middle-income families up to 400 percent of the federal poverty line – $94,500 for a family of four.

“A lot more people qualify than they think,” Kukendall said.

People who don’t have health insurance could face a penalty on their 2015 taxes if they don’t qualify for an exemption.

Kuykendall is available until 7 p.m. today at the Access Family Health office in Midtown Pointe, formerly Gloster Creek Village, and can be available after hours by appointment.

CATCH Kids is available during regular office hours; appointments are encouraged so people don’t have to wait.

“It takes about 30 minutes to set up,” Long said.

michaela.morris@journalinc.com

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RESOURCES

By phone or online

Healthcare.gov

• Health Help – Mississippi Health Advocacy Program (877) 314-3843, or coverms.org

In-person help

• Access Family Health Outreach 844-4252 or enroll@accessfamilyhealth.com

• CATCH Kids (662) 377-2194

• Sign-up event, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Plantersville

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com Brandi Dabbs, from left, was inspired by son Dawson and the Autism Center of North Mississippi to create the Small Town Run Around 5K. The entire family, including dad Steven and younger brother Everett, all get into the act.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Brandi Dabbs, from left, was inspired by son Dawson and the Autism Center of North Mississippi to create the Small Town Run Around 5K. The entire family, including dad Steven and younger brother Everett, all get into the act.

By Michaela Gibson Morris

Daily Journal

NETTLETON – Brandi Dabbs isn’t a runner, but she had to chart a course.

Inspired by her son Dawson’s struggles with autism, the Nettleton mom founded the Small Town Run Around 5k to support the Autism Center of North Mississippi. The third annual race will start at 9 a.m. April 5.

“Steven (her husband and Dawson’s dad) is the runner,” Dabbs said. “I like to plan and do.”

She wanted to do something to help connect parents and children with the diagnostic, therapy and advocacy services that have benefited her son, who is now 10.

“He’s come a long, long way,” Dabbs said. “Therapy – that’s been the saving grace.”

Dawson began showing signs of autism at age 3, but it took years to get an accurate diagnosis because he is so high functioning. When he was 8, the Dabbs family connected with the autism center, which was formed in 2009.

“It was awesome,” Dabbs said. “We made leaps and bounds.”

The autism center not only has helped Dawson directly with occupational and speech therapy, but it also helped Dabbs advocate effectively for Dawson at school.

“The school has really stepped up,” Dabbs said.

When Dabbs started floating the idea of a 5k, her father, Nettleton Alderman Charles Morris, encouraged her to bring a proposal for the run to the town board.

“They were all about it,” Dabbs said.

In 2012, more than 100 people took part in the race, and even more came out to support the run.

“It was more than we anticipated; I was thankful,” Dabbs said. “Last year we doubled it.”

More than a race, the Small Town Run Around has taken on the air of a town festival with inflatables and children’s activities.

“We wanted to make it special, especially for the kids on the spectrum,” she said.

Dabbs said she’s been overwhelmed by the community support. Over two years, the race has raised $10,000 for the autism center.

“They said, ‘We want there to be help for the kids that need it,’” Dabbs said. “I just squalled at the end.”

The efforts of Dabbs and her family, as well as Nettleton volunteers, have been heartwarming for the center’s staff, said Brittany Cuevas, director of business development for Autism Center of North Mississippi.

“We are all in this together,” to aid children with autism spectrum disorder and developmental disabilities, Cuevas said. “They need our help, and (the center) needs volunteers like Brandi and others who support the Small Town Run Around.”

For information and registration, visit smalltownrunaround.com.

michaela.morris@journalinc.com