When Elisabeth Schuler Russell’s phone rings at 7 o’clock one evening in October 2010, she braces herself. As the founder of Patient Navigator, a company that advocates for people facing medical problems, she is prepared to hear a heartbreaking story. But this phone call turns out to be especially wrenching. “My nephew had an accident,” says the weary, halting voice. The day before, the boy and several of his fellow college freshmen had piled into an SUV and headed to a school event. He was riding in the cargo area without a seat belt when the vehicle flipped, then skidded 40 yards.
“He’s in intensive care, paralyzed from the waist down,” the aunt says. He also has a broken jaw, six fractured ribs and a punctured lung. Doctors think he will live, but his parents, the Marshalls (not their real name), can’t bear to leave his bedside. They’ve asked his aunt to get information about the best spinal cord rehabilitation facilities. Are there any for young patients near their hometown? Can Russell help them?
Russell’s own teenagers are downstairs doing homework. She feels tears welling up but wills herself to sound calm. “Yes, we can find all that for you by tomorrow afternoon,” she says. Then, at the aunt’s request, Russell runs through a quick explanation of Patient Navigator’s fee structure. The woman agrees to the firm’s $125 hourly rate and a two-hour retainer. Russell has put off her usual litany of questions about doctors and insurance, because at this point what the family needs most urgently is research. Only later, in the kitchen with her husband, does she let herself experience the intensity of the sadness and compassion she is feeling.