Stephen Halpern, an elementary school art teacher of Fort Lee, faced a severe health crisis after contracting COVID-19, ultimately leading to cardiac arrest, a coma and anoxic brain injury and his struggles continue after he was cut off by his private for-profit heath insurance company.
However, his story has been defined not only by the challenges but also by the incredible outpouring of support from family, friends, and well-wishers.
It all began in May 2022 when Stephen contracted pneumonia during his battle with COVID-19. While attempting to reach the hospital on foot, he went into cardiac arrest and was revived on the scene.
Subsequently, he fell into a deep coma and was placed in the medical ICU for 3½ weeks. His journey has been marked by complexities, including the need for a ventilator and other medical interventions.
Despite the harrowing circumstances, the love and care from those who know Stephen have shone brightly. He remains in the hearts and thoughts of countless individuals who hold him dear.
“Stephen is a generous, caring, kind, and gentle human being, and an incredibly hard-working elementary school art teacher,” said his father, Jerry Halpern. “As a teacher, he has engendered the love of art in his students, and touched more lives than we ever could have imagined.”
After nearly 8 weeks, Stephen entered a minimally conscious state, moving his head and eyes from side to side, and able to recognize family by their voices when they were in his room, but was unable to communicate.
Throughout this challenging time, a GoFundMe campaign was initiated to help cover the costs of Stephen’s extended care. It has gained remarkable support, with contributions from friends, colleagues, and well-wishers, reaching over 50% of the target goal within two days.
By three months, Stephen progressed to the next stage of his recovery, entering into one of the top rehab programs in the United States, the Kessler Institute for Brain Injury Rehabilitation in West Orange. Due to various medical complications, he was hospitalized at least four times, and was not able to take full advantage of the Kessler treatment.
On November 25, 2022, his father by Jerry Halpern reported that Stephen was confronted by two major issues.
“The first was that he was hospitalized for 154 days (over the course of the past six and a half months) for medical issues, which prevented Stephen from receiving successful and continued neurologic and physical rehabilitation,” wrote Jerry Halpern. “The second is that his medical insurance company, Cigna, rules the decision for continued treatment and care, based on the metric of neurologic and physical improvement.”
“Prior to insurance companies running the medical care system, Stephen would have remained in the program until improvement in his neurologic and physical status could be seen,” wrote Jerry Halpern. “However, our medical care system is run by business, and sadly not by the patient’s need for care. Cigna has denied the appeal for any additional coverage for Stephen to stay at Kessler.”
By December 26, 2022, Stephen’s 38th birthday, his health insurance had ceased coverage of his rehabilitation program.
“It has been seven months since Stephen became ill and succumbed to the catastrophic effects of Covid. We hold on to the hope he will improve and achieve some return to consciousness, but he still remains non-responsive to commands,” wrote Jerry Halpern at that time.
About ten months after the catastrophic event that left him in this condition, Stephen was brought home to a room in his parent’s apartment , where he receives specialized cared from a team of 24/7 nurses.
The stress of the situation is evident.
“May 6th will mark one year since Stephen sustained the brain injury that so abruptly robbed him of his warm smile and caring personality. It is hard to fathom that nearly a year has passed without our dear Stephen in our lives. It is a uniquely surreal experience to grieve a loved one who is still here on Earth,” wrote Jerry Halpern, on April 15, 2023. “We continue to hold on to hope and a strong belief in miracles.”
Stephen is breathing on his own, for the most part. He receives speech therapy and PT, each twice/week. He turns his eyes, and occasionally his head to indicate a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a simple question,” wrote Jerry Halpern, on August 30, 2023. “This is a slow process. He needs to regain his ability to swallow in order for his tracheostomy tube and feeding tube to be removed. The nerves that control these functions were damaged by his injury. He still cannot move his arms, hands or legs.”
Stephen had two bouts with bronchitis this month, but that was not the worst development, according to his father, who said the family has used up more than the $364,386 contributed through the GoFundMe page.
“We have come to a difficult juncture in the continued care for Stephen. This month, the funds raised in this GoFundme account will be exhausted. We have applied for Medicaid, with the help of a law firm that handles Medicaid applications. We have also applied for Social Security Disability benefits. However, the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, especially for the ones who need the help the most,” wrote Jerry Halpern, on October 21, 2023. “We are now paying fully out of pocket for Stephen’s 24/7 nursing care, which amounts to several thousands of dollars a week. This does not include the non-covered expenses for medications, medical supplies, equipment, legal fees and the variety of special needs. We were also hoping to use the funds raised to purchase a special needs transport van to transport Stephen to doctor’s appointments.”
Stephen’s family remains steadfast in their belief that he will recover and return to his loved ones, thanks to the prayers and support from a compassionate community. The art teacher, known for his kindness and impact on countless students, holds a special place in the hearts of those who have experienced his warm smile and caring nature.
The road to recovery is still uncertain, but the Halpern family continues to stand strong, believing in miracles. They extend their heartfelt gratitude to all who have offered their love, prayers, and support during this difficult time. In the face of such adversity, they express their deepest appreciation for the kindness shown to Stephen and their family.
The love, compassion, and unity demonstrated throughout Stephen’s journey serve as a testament to the power of community and the unwavering belief in his recovery. The family’s message is clear: Stephen Halpern will overcome his present challenges and return, stronger than ever, to a world that dearly misses him.