Mum speaks out: 'My baby and AOL's bottom line'

Deanna Fei and her daughter: "Yes, we had a premmie in intensive care. This was certainly not our intention."
Deanna Fei and her daughter: "Yes, we had a premmie in intensive care. This was certainly not our intention." 

Late last week, Tim Armstrong, the chief executive officer of AOL, landed himself in a media storm when he held a meeting with employees to explain why he was paring their retirement benefits. After initially blaming Obamacare for driving up the healthcare costs, he pointed the finger at an unlikely target: babies.

Specifically, my baby.

‘‘Two things that happened in 2012,’’ Armstrong said. ‘‘We had two AOL-ers that had distressed babies that were born that we paid a million dollars each to make sure those babies were OK in general. And those are the things that add up into our benefits cost. So when we had the final decision about what benefits to cut because of the increased healthcare costs, we made the decision, and I made the decision, to basically change the [retirement] plan.’’

A fighter ... Deanna Fei's daughter in NICU.
A fighter ... Deanna Fei's daughter in NICU. 

For the record: It was me. I don’t work for AOL; my husband does. One of those ‘‘distressed babies’’ was our daughter. We pay our health insurance premiums for our family through AOL, which is why we had coverage on the morning I woke up in acute pain, only five months into what had been a completely smooth pregnancy.

Late Saturday, Armstrong finally issued an apology in an email to employees: ‘‘On a personal note, I made a mistake and I apologise for my comments last week at the town hall when I mentioned specific healthcare examples.’’ He also announced that he would restore the old retirement savings plan. This is commendable, but the damage to my family had already been done.

Here is how we supposedly became a drain on AOL’s coffers. On October 9, 2012, when I woke up in pain, my husband was at the airport about to board a flight for a work trip. I was home alone with our one-year-old son and barely able to comprehend that I could be in labour. By the time I arrived at the hospital, my husband a few minutes behind, I was fully dilated and my baby’s heartbeat was slowing. Within 20 minutes, my daughter was delivered via emergency caesarean, resuscitated and placed in the neonatal intensive care unit.

She weighed 708grams. Her skin was reddish-purple, bloody and bruised all over.’ I couldn’t hold my daughter or nurse her or hear her cries, which were silenced by the ventilator. Without it, she couldn’t breathe.

That day, we were told that she had roughly a one-third chance of dying before we could bring her home. That she might not survive one month or one week or one day. She also had at least a one-third chance of being severely disabled, unable to ever lead an independent life.

As shell-shocked and stricken as we were, my husband and I were not oblivious to the staggering tolls, emotional and financial, attached to a baby like ours. For longer than I can bear to remember, we were too terrified to name her, to know her, to love her. In my lowest moments - when she suffered a brain haemorrhage, when her right lung collapsed, when she stopped breathing altogether one morning - I found myself wishing that I could simply mourn her loss and go home to take care of my strapping, exuberant, fat-cheeked son.

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But the neonatologists also described my daughter as ‘‘feisty’’ and ‘‘amazing.’’ And over the next weeks, she fought for every minute of her young life, as did her doctors and nurses, and we could only strive to do the same.

My daughter had to spend three months in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), dependent on many high-tech medical apparatuses and round-the-clock care. She endured more procedures than I can count.

Some commentators have questioned the implausibility of ‘‘million-dollar babies”. Even though it’s unlikely that AOL directly paid out those sums, I don’t take issue with Armstrong’s number.

Error of judgment: Tim Armstrong, chief executive officer of AOL.
Error of judgment: Tim Armstrong, chief executive officer of AOL. 

I do take issue with how he reduced my daughter to a ‘‘distressed baby’’ who cost the company too much money. How he blamed the saving of her life for his decision to scale back employee benefits. How he exposed the most searing experience of our lives, one that my husband and I still struggle to discuss with anyone but each other, for no other purpose than an absurd justification for corporate cost-cutting.

At home with our daughter, I found myself again unable to look at her without recalling her clinging to life support. Since her arrival, I’ve rarely been free from some form of torment over her premature birth. The months of pumping breast milk for a baby who might not live to drink it. The anxieties about every milestone: Will she smile? Will she lift her head? Will she crawl, talk, sing? The torturous thoughts of what I might have done wrong during my brief pregnancy, how I might have failed her as her mother.

Because the day of her birth was the furthest thing from a happy event, because so many of her first days were lived under the spectre of death, I’ve never had the luxury of taking her presence for granted. Every time she wakes with a dazzling smile and goes to sleep with her soft head against my shoulder feels like a wonder.

All of which made the implication from Armstrong that the saving of her life was an extravagant option, an oversize burden on the company bottom line, feel like a cruel violation, no less brutal for the ludicrousness of his contention.

Let’s set aside the fact that Armstrong - who took home $12 million in pay in 2012 - felt the need to announce a cut in employee benefits on the very day that he touted the best quarterly earnings in years. For me and my husband, the hardest thing to bear has been the whiff of judgment in Armstrong’s statement, as if we selfishly gobbled up an obscenely large slice of the collective health care pie.

Yes, we had a premmie in intensive care. This was certainly not our intention. We experienced exactly the kind of unforeseeable, unpreventable medical crisis that any health plan is supposed to cover. Isn’t that the whole point of health insurance?

These days, at the age of one, my daughter is nothing short of a miracle, which is to say, she appears much like any healthy baby. This past week has been eventful for her. Right around when Tim Armstrong might have been preparing for that conference call, she took her first steps, two tiny steps, before plopping down and demanding to be hugged for her efforts.

Our daughter has already overcome more setbacks than most of us have endured in the span of our lives. Having her very existence used as a scapegoat for cutting corporate benefits was one indignity too many.

Editor's note: After this article was first published on Slate.com, Armstrong apologised to Deanna Fei and her husband. "He spoke to me as a person to another person, and not in the public role as a CEO. He spoke to me in a heartfelt way, as a father of three kids to a fellow parent," she said. "His apology was heartfelt and I appreciated it and I do forgive him, and I understand that we all say things that we wish we could take back."

- This is a condensed version of an article that first appeared on Slate 

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