Johnston teen still in coma more than a year after accident

jprice@newsobserver.comJune 26, 2012 

— A brief court hearing Tuesday in the Wake County Courthouse over the guardianship of a comatose teenager opened a window into a lingering family tragedy.

Freddie Lempe, then 17 years old, was severely injured in an auto accident March 6, 2011. According to a Facebook page maintained by supporters, the Smithfield-Selma High School senior was a passenger in a car traveling at high speed along N.C. 39 north of Selma when the girl who was driving lost control.

The car plowed into a ditch, crossed the road, hit another ditch, then tumbled end over end down a tree line, coming to rest more than 700 feet from where the accident began.

The girl was thrown clear and suffered only minor injuries, but Lempe was tossed 80 feet and, according to friends who came to court Tuesday, suffered a traumatic brain injury, broken neck, punctured lung and broken hip.

More than a year later, the once animated competitive swimmer is still in WakeMed’s Raleigh hospital in a coma. In a report filed with the county, his court-appointed attorney said he isn’t getting better.

“His condition has improved only slightly and further improvement is not likely,” wrote attorney Robert Brown of Raleigh.

Lempe's supporters disagree, and the Facebook page called Pray4Freddie is dedicated to his full recovery.

Supporters also created an entire YouTube channel for videos of Lempe in his hospital bed. Some depict Freddie doing what the videos describe as exercising in response to coaching from his dad, Frederick Lempe.

Legal guardianship

The brief hearing Tuesday was on a motion to have his father replaced as Freddie’s legal guardian.

Freddie Lempe is now 18. His Medicaid coverage expired – apparently in April, but that’s not clear, said his father – and someone needs to reapply on his behalf so that the cost of his care at WakeMed is covered.

A court filing on behalf of WakeMed says Lempe was denied Medicaid because his father failed to pull together the proper paperwork when asked. Frederick Lempe and his lawyer said Tuesday that wasn’t true. They blamed Johnston County’s Department of Social Services, which is charged with handling the application because Lempe’s hometown is Smithfield.

Medicaid is the government health care program for people and families with low incomes and limited assets that’s funded by the state and federal government and administered by the state. Lempe initially qualified, but there was confusion over his coverage after he turned 18 in October.

“To be honest with you, they all tell you something different every time you talk to them,” he said.

Eventually, his father said, Lempe’s eligibility expired, apparently in April. After that, he said, Johnston DSS demanded a confusing and ever-increasing swirl of documents, which slowed the reapplication.

Frederick Lempe’s attorney also said that WakeMed had moved too aggressively in seeking to have Lempe’s father removed as his guardian, and that the hospital’s sole focus seems to be money.

“The only reason they’ve given is saying that his father was not able to procure Medicaid, and maybe someone else could,” said attorney Marcia Stewart.

Medicaid filings complex

Johnston DSS director G. Earl Marett said that privacy laws prevented him from discussing Lempe’s case.

But Marett said the Medicaid application process is complex and requires a lot of paperwork, such as documents verifying financial assets.

“I can say that any time anyone needs a Medicaid application filed, we process them as fast as we can,” he said. “To do that, of course, we must have all the information required to do that.”

WakeMed likewise said it was barred from offering much detail on Lempe’s situation.

“We are committed to providing exceptional care to all of our patients and feel confident that Freddie is receiving and has received excellent care as a patient at WakeMed,” Debra Z. Laughery, vice president of public relations for the WakeMed system, wrote in an email response to questions. “The petition for guardianship and the court proceeding has nothing to do with the care Freddie has received and will continue to receive regardless of the judge’s decision. We are simply taking steps to secure financial resources for Freddie through Medicaid which should be available to him for his care.”

Typically when the hospital seeks a change in a patient’s guardianship – which isn’t often – is does so because the patient has no one else to properly speak for him, Laughery wrote.

“It is a very rare occurrence that we seek to modify guardianship for a patient who has a healthcare advocate,” she wrote. “We only seek guardianship when we believe it is in the best interest of the patient.”

Blair Williams, the chief assistant clerk of court who oversaw the hearing, gave Frederick Lempe more time, until July 25, to clear up the problem with the Medicaid application.

Marett said Tuesday that he had only learned of the case through media attention this week. He vowed that if his staff had Lempe’s application and all the required documents that his department would do all it could to get the application filed quickly.

‘He was so energetic’

Lempe’s accident didn’t get much media attention when it happened, at least partly because he was injured rather than killed.

But his plight and that of his family are reminders of the full impact of Johnston County’s ongoing epidemic of teen car crashes. Thirty-one teenagers were killed in auto accidents there from 2007 to 2011.

But for Freddie Lempe’s family and the half dozen or so young friends who came to court Tuesday, it was all about the tragedy of one kid who didn’t die.

Brandon Roberts, a former classmate, came in Army camouflage, fresh from basic training. It wasn’t lost on him that his life was going off in an exciting new direction while his friend was lying still in a hospital bed.

“He was so energetic, and it seems like just yesterday we were in shop class together,” Roberts said. “I still just can’t believe this happened to Freddie.”

Price: 919-829-4526

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