In fight for his life, Isle of Wight officer needs help from the law

Published 8:35 am Friday, January 30, 2009

SMITHFIELD—Kathie Beach sent out an e-mail last year to friends titled “My hero needs a hero.”

For many of the townspeople of Smithfield, Kathie’s husband, Kurt Beach, is just that as a veteran of the Smithfield Police Department. But now, the well-known lieutenant is fighting for his life and fighting the law.

Twenty years ago, in February 1988, Beach responded to an emergency call for an infant who wasn’t breathing. Basic CPR techniques were futile due to obstructing particles in the child’s throat, so Beach had to suck out the clogging blood and mucous particles. Doing that, says Beach, “I got the airway to open up and started to give CPR.”

It wasn’t until 1994 that police officers and first responders in Smithfield were instructed about the potential for contracting diseases via blood-borne pathogens. Beach immediately had himself tested for two common blood-borne diseases: hepatitis and HIV. The tests came back negative. But when Beach tried to donate blood to the American Red Cross later in the year, he received a letter saying that his blood had been detected as having “non-A, non-B Hepatitis.”

“They didn’t even know what to call (Hepatitis C) back then,” said Beach. Medical checkups and tests in Smithfield as well as Portsmouth confirmed Beach’s infection. Subsequent investigation by the Smithfield Police Department, said Beach, confirmed that the baby he had given CPR to in 1988 had received multiple blood transfusions from donors with Hepatitis C.

It was after the diagnosis, when Beach attempted to file for worker’s compensation to cover hefty medical expenses, that another nightmare began. The Virginia law for worker’s compensation is governed by a statute of limitations: To be eligible, an employee must file a claim within two years of the initial diagnosis or within five years of the incident, whichever comes first.

“’Whichever comes first’. That’s what got me,” said Beach. “It was well past five years by the time I had found out that I had a need to claim.”

Beach and his wife, Kathie, fought for the claim through 1995 and 1996 and took the case all the way to the Virginia Court of Appeals. But the claim was denied.

State Delegate William K. Barlow, D-Smithfield, sponsored House Bills 2252 and 2243 in the General Assembly this year to make sure a case like Beach’s doesn’t happen again.

House Bill 2252 would extend the time period for a Virginia employee filing a claim under the workers’ compensation law. If passed, it wouldn’t affect Beach, but House Bill 2243 seeks $250,000 in compensation for the medical expenses he has incurred — expenses, said Beach, that have required him and his wife to refinance their house two times.

Kathie, along with Smithfield Chief of Police Mark Marshall, went to Richmond on Tuesday to speak to the committee overseeing House Bill 2243, and they met with a small victory. “They didn’t say yes, and they didn’t say no,” said Kathie. The Technology Oversight and Government Activities Committee voted to revisit the bill later during the legislative session.

Both bills are expected to come to committee votes this coming Tuesday, and Kathie is preparing to make the drive to Richmond again with Marshall.

For now, all Beach can do is wait. He is on a list for a living liver donor from the Hume-Lee Transplant Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he goes for medical work about once a month. Beach goes to Smithfield Medical Clinic on a weekly basis to have his ammonia and sodium levels tested.

The medical expenses continue to pile up. Beach is on family medical leave from work and says he is “burning through sick leave.” Kathie continues to work part-time as secretary at the Beaches’ church, Smithfield Assembly of God, but it won’t be enough. Costs for surgery are expected to be vast, and the Beaches expect to pay $40,000 out-of-pocket the first year after surgery just for pharmaceuticals.

Thanks to Kathie’s e-mail, which the Beaches say found its way all around the nation, communities and individual citizens have been raising money to fund Beach’s medical expenses. All of the funds go to the Kurt Beach Medical Fund, which is overseen by a trustee.

Locally, Smithfield Assembly of God raised nearly $5,000 with a recent chili dinner. On Feb. 8, employees of the Town of Smithfield will sponsor a “Caring Hearts for Kurt Beach” dinner, with tickets at $10 per person. Beach hopes to stop by at the event, although he seldom ventures out from home.

“If he gets weak or if he gets a cold or anything, it would keep him down for awhile,” said Kathie. “We’re expecting a phone call anytime. We need to be ready to go when they say we’ve got the donor, and he needs to be in good shape for that. The better shape he’s in going in, the quicker the recovery going out.”

For now, Beach is doing everything he can to prepare for the liver donor that he believes will come soon. Beach, who continued working at the Police Department until May 2008, when he was told by his doctor that he was no longer fit for duty, looks forward to getting back to work as well.

Despite the setbacks, Beach’s faith remains strong.

“That painting on the wall over there,” said Beach, pointing to a painting of two hands coming together in prayer, “I look at it every day, and I thank God for His mercy. My wife painted that.”

“I look at the bright side, not the negative side,” he added. “My miracle is waiting right around the corner, and I see it in faith … but it’s all in God’s hands.”