NASHVILLE — More than a year after a routine steroid injection turned into a painful fungal infection that nearly killed her, Marjorie Norwood is still suffering physically and emotionally. She also carries a huge stress: the hospital that houses the clinic where she contracted the infection has billed more than half a million dollars for her treatment.
Norwood argues that she should not have to pay Saint Thomas West Hospital for the months of painful treatment and expensive medicines that fought the infection but did not restore her health.
"They made me sick, and they made me come to their hospital to take care of me. And it was their fault that I was there," she said during a recent interview. "I shouldn't have had to pay a cent, not a dime."
In some ways, Norwood is lucky. The same mold-contaminated medicine that was injected into her back killed 64 people around the country. She was one of 750 who were sickened, and her struggle provides a window into the challenges survivors can face while trying to resume their lives.
The 60-year-old says the disease left her with permanent nerve damage. Despite months of therapy, Norwood sometimes slurs her speech. She has a hard time opening things. She can be clumsy. She can't put her hand behind her head. She sometimes doesn't remember recent conversations with her daughter.
Like many of the victims, Norwood is suing the hospital, the clinic and the New England-based pharmacy that provided the medication. She hopes a jury will award her enough damages to at least pay her medical bills.
Tennessee law caps non-economic damages, such as for pain and suffering, at $750,000. Punitive damages cannot be more than twice the award for economic and emotional damages. Norwood is challenging those caps in her lawsuit. No trial date has yet been set.
Saint Thomas West spokeswoman Rebecca Climer said in an email response to questions that the hospital is following its normal billing practices and that "legal and contractual issues in the Medicare program and in private insurance contracts restrict a provider's ability to deviate" from those practices.
Of the 153 people sickened in Tennessee, one of the hardest hit states during the fall 2012 outbreak, 113 got the tainted steroid injections at the Saint Thomas Outpatient Neurosurgical Center.
The Norwoods have health insurance through her husband's job, but they are not sure how much of the more than $500,000 worth of bills it will cover. Her medications alone cost between $400 and $600 a day at one point, and her treatment is ongoing, so the bills continue to accumulate.
"Our savings is gone. We have no savings, no retirement. Everything we've got is gone," Norwood said.
Norwood's attorney, Mark Chalos, said several other victims he represents are also facing large hospital bills.
Her daughter Melanie says the worst part is not the money, but what was permanently taken from her mother -- her physical abilities and the self-confidence that comes with being independent.
"She wanted to be able to goof around with her grandkids, but now they have to be careful around her because they don't know if they're going to hurt her," Melanie Norwood said. "It takes a lot of energy out of her just to do normal daily tasks, even to feed the dog."
Norwood underwent back surgery for a bulging disk in 2003. She re-injured her back cutting the grass in the summer of 2012 and went in for a steroid injection at Saint Thomas. She had previous shots that usually brought relief.
After this injection, however, she started having fevers and aches. Some days later, Norwood got a call from the hospital, and went in that same afternoon. She wouldn't leave for almost two months. Her husband Jerry, an auto worker who had taken a job in Michigan, had to take an extended leave to stay by her side.
Norwood lost more than 20 pounds, becoming weak and lethargic. She couldn't see for a while. Her hair started falling out. She hallucinated, at one point biting an IV line in half.
Fungal meningitis is extremely rare and occurs when a fungus, in this case a black mold, infects the lining of the spinal cord and brain. Most sickened in the 2012 outbreak were infected by a fungus that had never been observed as a cause of meningitis, making it difficult for doctors to know how long to prescribe a potent anti-fungal that can damage the liver and kidneys and have other harsh side effects. Doctors have warned many patients, including Norwood, to be aware of any relapse symptoms.
After Norwood left the hospital, she spent two months in a nursing home. Even after she was allowed to go home, she continued to need therapy. But her husband could not stay any longer. He had to return to work.
When the hospital bills and collection notices started coming, Norwood would discuss the situation with her daughter.
"I'd start crying and she'd say, 'Now calm down. It's not as bad as you think it is,'" recalled Norwood. "But it was as bad."
She and her husband cashed in the 401k she had from her job at a lawnmower factory, before her injury. They also spent a homeowners insurance check meant to repair hail damage to their house.
"It got to the point where we only had a few hundred dollars in the bank. We had to take out an equity loan on the house to cover the bills, and that's how we've been making it," she said.
In Michigan, Norwood's husband, 62, shares an apartment with a co-worker and tries to live frugally.
"He goes through the week on nothing but sandwiches," his wife said.
Marjorie Norwood also tries to spend little.
For her birthday this year, Norwood said her daughter took her to Dillard's department store, where she had never been.
"We tried on hats. I didn't get a birthday present. We just went out to Dillard's," she said.