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Many turn to online crowdfunding to pay for medical emergencies 

Matthew Gutowski was a dedicated cyclist, and at the age of 43, he was active and living the very picture of a healthly lifestyle.

But that changed on the morning of Nov. 6, when he woke up feeling strange.

“It was confusing,” said Gutowski, who moved to SLO in October. “I couldn’t talk, and I couldn’t use the left side of my body. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Gutowski was having a stroke. He went to the hospital for treatment. When he got out of the hospital, and when all was said and done, he’d racked up roughly $62,000 in medical bills. Unfortunately, Gutowski recently changed jobs, and was between insurance plans. His health insurance for his old job ran out a week before the stroke happened, and insurance through his new job was still 30 days away from being active. As he recovered, Gutowski looked for a way to pay off the massive bill.

“You try to pay your debts,” he said. “That’s the way I was raised.”

Eventually Gutowski decided on a course of action that many individuals with medical expenses and few options to pay for them take. He set up a crowdfunding page on the popular site GoFundMe. His page, like many others on the site, explains his situation, and asks those who go to the site for donations.

Since Nov. 15, Gutowski’s GoFundMe campaign raised $855, much of it from family and friends. Asking for help in such a public way wasn’t easy.

“It was very humbling to reach out like that,” he said. “But I knew I had a mountain of medical bills.”

Gutowski is far from alone in turning to crowd-sourced donations to take care of bills resulting from a medical emergency. While they still feature campaigns to fund new products, inventions, or creative projects like film and videogames, crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe, You Caring, Indiegogo’s Generosity, and others have become an option for those fighting growing stacks of medical bills. 

“GoFundMe’s medical category has always been among our most popular, though it has grown considerably over the years,” said Kelsea Little, media director for GoFundMe. “There have been over 1.8 million campaigns created in our medical, illness, and healing category.”

Those campaigns have raised more than $472 million, according to Little. 

The Central Coast is no exception. A search under GoFundMe’s medical category in the SLO County area yielded 216 active campaigns. Some, like Gutowski’s, seek help with expenses related to recovering from a stroke. Others seek funds for upcoming surgery or serious and chronic conditions like cancer which require multiple and expensive treatments. 

With the vast number of other individuals, all asking for help, creating a campaign for a very personal medical emergency becomes, for better or worse, an exercise in mass marketing. 

“The more effort an organizer puts into their campaign, the more they get out of it,” Little said.

In an email to New Times, Little laid out some factors that successful campaigns share. Social media plays a large role in the promotion and success of a crowdfunding campaign, and those created to pay for medical expenses are no exception. GoFundMe recommends creating a Facebook site for the campaign, linking it to the site, and frequently sharing the campaign with family and friends on social media.  

Despite the sheer number of such campaigns, they can still be very successful. Earlier this year, students and faculty at San Luis Obispo High School rallied to raise money for Greta Schultz, a beloved cafeteria worker recovering from two brain aneurysms and a neuromuscular disease that saddled her with enormous medical expenses. Schultz’s GoFundMe page was shared more than 1,000 times on Facebook, and received $7,601 from 182 individuals in a little more than a month. Additional fundraising at SLO High School raised another $13,000, according to information on the GoFundMe page.  

Another campaign is also getting attention on social media and has already raised several thousand dollars for the owner of a local restaurant. In just seven days, the #ScottyStrong Medical Fund raised $8,450 of its $15,000 goal for Scott Pierce. Pierce, the owner and operator of Scotty’s BBQ in Atascadero, suffered a stroke Nov. 23, and is fighting the ongoing complications that require constant treatment, ongoing testing, and possible surgery. According to the campaign’s GoFundMe page, Pierce is self-employed and unable to collect disability.

“His income has been reduced to almost nothing,” the page, created by Marisa Garza Alexander, reads. “Scotty is a prideful man and is reluctant to ask for help.”

The fundraising campaign for Pierce has been shared more than 1,100 times on Facebook, with many donors leaving heartfelt comments along with small donations of between $20 and $100.

While messages of love and support may be a heartwarming testament to the good in humanity, the fact that so many are strapped with enormous medical bills and have to turn to crowdfunding to pay them, shows a staggering number of Americans with health issues that are still struggling, despite recent and sweeping efforts to reform the country’s health-care system.

“It was a real eye opener, and I don’t think people really realize how messed up our health-care industry is,” Gutowski, who is now fully recovered from his stroke, said. “It’s sort of a statement on health care in America; there’s no safety net for people like me and people who fell through the cracks.”  

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com, and on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.

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