Kaitlyn Dobrow hunches over the iPhone on her zebra-print comforter, texting a friend with the stump of her arm that was amputated at the elbow.
Her two-toned, pink bedroom with a chandelier was once the family dining room where Kaitlyn, 19, grew up eating meals.
But her parents, Don and Kathi Dobrow, remodeled their Huntington Beach home after Kaitlyn lost her four limbs during a life-threatening case of bacterial meningitis.
Her family’s medical insurance paid millions for her six-month hospitalization, but the Dobrows were left with many other ancillary expenses. They created a downstairs bedroom, bought a van with a wheelchair ramp and want to outfit Kaitlyn with the most sophisticated prosthetics to restore her independence.
To that end, friends, family and strangers have all chipped in with the click of a mouse.
Donors from around the world have contributed about $110,000 toKaitlyn’s family throughGiveforward.com, one of several for-profit companies that keep a share of revenue raised. On that site alone, fundraisers have been set up for kids with cancer, victims of the Boston marathon bombing and middle-age adults who have lost their health insurance.
In the past, relatives might organize a weekend car wash or bake sale to raise money for medical expenses. But in the last couple of years, so-called crowd-funding websites have emerged that enable families to receive cash and well wishes without ever leaving a bedside.
“It was shocking, the number of donations,” Kathi Dobrow, 58, said. “People have just been so compassionate. This goodness showed up.”
On Feb. 11, Kaitlyn went to work as a hotel front desk receptionist. Afterward, she worked out at the gym and came home late. She remembers feeling sick and shivering when she crawled into bed.
She threw up, her joints ached and her head hurt. The next day, Kathi assumed Kaitlyn had the flu and gave her Advil.
But by mid-afternoon, bruises began to develop on Kaitlyn’s body. Kathi called paramedics and Kaitlyn was soon transferred to UC Irvine Medical Center, where she underwent 22 surgeries and spent her entire stay in the intensive care unit.
Doctors there said Kaitlyn developed an overwhelming blood infection that caused her blood to clot, stopping it from reaching 57 percent of her skin and soft tissues. The resulting damage was the equivalent of third degree burns. In addition to the amputations, she underwent skin grafts for other damaged tissue.
Kaitlyn’s cousin Laura Cockrell, 46, wanted to help, but would need to from afar.
The Tucson resident knew the family would have many expenses, so she began researching ways that she could use social media to solicit donations. She came across the Giveforward website and decided to create a page for Kaitlyn because of the ease of use and so people could leave supportive messages, regardless of whether they donated money.
Kaitlyn’s family and friends spread the word through Facebook and email. Donations from strangers, big and small, poured in after Kaitlyn’s illness was reported in the Orange County Register and other media outlets.
“To see people that are complete strangers just rally and support this young girl, it’s really moving,” Cockrell said. “More than anything, I loved reading all the messages that people left.”
One anonymous donor gave $15 late last month and left this message: “God bless you, I wish you nothing but the best. Sorry, I’m a college student so I can’t donate nearly as much as other people have but, I hope this goes a long way. You and your family are in my prayers <3”
A man who had never met the family gave $10,000 through the site. When Kathi emailed him a thank you, he responded that he’d been blessed in life and wasn’t interested in acquiring material things.
A fourth-grade class raised money for Kaitlyn; other children donated their proceeds from lemonade stands.
In addition to the money raised on the website, a foundation donated $50,000 for remodeling expenses. Other donors have sent checks.
Kaitlyn marvels that so many have taken an interest in her recovery.
“I think it’s really nice but I still don’t get it,” she said. “There’s other people that have gotten bacterial meningitis and I don’t know why they’re giving it to me and not them.”
ROAD TO RECOVERY
Due to heavy pain medication, Kaitlyn remembers only bits and pieces of her first four months in the hospital. She recalls feeling her body dying but knowing she didn’t want to die. She hoped she would soon jolt awake from a nightmare.
Kaitlyn woke up June 3, three days before her 19th birthday.
“I still thought it was February,” she said.
By all accounts, Kaitlyn has adjusted remarkably to her ordeal.
“It is what it is,” she said. “I think, this is what happened and I have to deal with what happened. I don’t like to feel sad. I personally don’t believe in depression.”
Her parents were worried about how Kaitlyn would respond to seeing the aftermath of the illness.
“The first time she looked in the mirror, she was very upset but then she got over it,” Kathi said. “She gets upset about things and then she moves on.”
In August, Kaitlyn was released from UCI and spent nearly two months at a rehabilitation facility. She came home Oct. 3 to a joyful reunion with her dogs.
While in the hospital, Kaitlyn quickly learned to text. While she waits for prosthetics, she uses adaptive tools Velcroed to a cuff on her right stump. She can draw, eat and apply makeup, one of her favorite things to do. Only days after coming home, she did a neighbor girl’s makeup for homecoming.
“She’ll be struggling with something and she’ll say, ‘No, I don’t need help,’” Kathi said. “She’s stubborn. She’s tough.”
It’s difficult for Kaitlyn to relax and get comfortable. Her scarred skin feels tight and she’s always hot. Her core muscles are all she has to hold herself up. If she has to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, she texts her mom.
The family plans to use the bulk of the money raised for the most functional prosthetics that would enable her to shower on her own and pick up a dime off the floor. But insurance most likely won’t cover the most sophisticated technology, which can cost $100,000 for a hand, Kathi said.
“I have times where it hits me that she’s lost her limbs and it’s painful but I refuse to dwell on that. We’ve been really focusing on the fact that she’s alive and the rest of it we can deal with.”
Kaitlyn goes to the grocery store with her mom and on short outings with her friends. Some people stare at her with disgust. Others, who have heard of her illness, tell her they’ve been praying for her.
“I’m doing good,” Kaitlyn said. “I feel like myself again.”
To view Kaitlyn’s second fundraiser, visitgiveforward.com/fundraiser/8vl2/care-for-kaitlyn-dobrow
The stories and photos of sick patients are often heart-wrenching, and the chance to help is only a click away.
At any given time, tens of thousands of Americans are seeking donations for medical expenses and related costs, such as transportation and lost income. Crowd-funding websites calculate that they’ve helped raise millions of dollars for such causes, which are typically shared on Facebook or Twitter.
“Making a donation online, that’s really easy,” said Luke Miner, co-founder of Northern California-based Youcaring.com. “It makes your reach so much farther when you’re able to go online.”
But before you give to help cover medical expenses or choose a site to set up your own fundraiser, here’s what you should know:
• Fees vary from site to site. Gofundme.com charges the fundraising recipient 5 percent plus users pay 2.9 percent for PayPal withdrawals. The site tells users they’ll “raise more money, more quickly on GoFundMe than any other method available, which easily makes up for the fee.”
Youcaring.com charges no administrative fee, though the PayPal withdrawal fee applies. The site also asks donors to give an optional 5 percent or more to offset website costs.
Giveforward.com deducts 7.9 percent but asks donors to cover the cost, saying that most do, which makes the actual fee 2.9 percent on average.
• Consider taxes. The sites are run by for-profit companies, so gifts to medical causes aren’t tax deductible like a gift to a medical charity would be.
Also, recipients are urged to contact an accounting professional to determine if donations will be treated as income.
Andrea Woodhouse, a spokeswoman for Children’s Hospital of Orange County, said social workers encourage families who want to raise money to “seek sound legal and financial advice regarding, for example, any implications that income from the website may have on federal and state benefits.”
When it comes to Medi-Cal eligibility, a spokesman for the Department of Health Care Services said gifts are not normally considered income under Internal Revenue Service tax rules but said atax professional should be consulted.
The IRS website says, “Generally, the person who receives your gift will not have to pay any federal gift tax because of it. Also, that person will not have to pay income tax on the value of the gift received.”