Firefighter pays electric bill to keep teen on ventilator

Story highlights

  • "We will be working with this customer to get her the assistance she needs," utility says
  • Firefighter steps in for family with mounting electric bill
  • Seven machines, all running on electricity, keep disabled son alive
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Clinton Township, Michigan (CNN)When the call comes, firefighters like Ryan McCuen always rush in, never quite sure what they'll encounter.

On February 11, McCuen walked into this: a mother at wit's end, a bedridden 18-year-old on a ventilator, his emergency battery power soon running out, and electricity to the home cut off by the local power company.
    "I just happened to be put in that spot to do what I was supposed to do," said 35-year-old McCuen. "I was just doing what you're supposed to do."

    'They needed their bill paid'

    It started as a routine call in Michigan for Clinton Township's Engine 5, a "nonemergency medical" as firefighters call it.
    What they found in the living room of this suburban Detroit double-wide mobile home was Troy Stone, who suffers Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a particularly debilitating variation of the muscle-wasting disease. Stone, who has limited movement of his limbs and is no longer able to breathe on his own, had a tracheotomy last December. His family has struggled financially, and they had fallen behind on payments to the local utility.
    Christy Stone, Troy's mother, said their electric bill has gone up threefold since Troy had the breathing tube inserted. It now takes seven machines, all running on electricity, to keep him alive.
    Despite having a letter from their doctor's office informing DTE Energy that "there must be electrical power in the home to maintain ... life support equipment," the power was still cut off.
    "They said it wasn't the doctor's signature on it, it was the nurse's signature on it. So they said it was denied," an exasperated Christy Stone said. Nearly in tears, Stone described how she pleaded with the DTE representative to keep the power on: "How can you deny somebody that's on life support? So I did everything that I could and they just ... it's just messed up."
    At first, a spokesperson for DTE Energy called the situation "unfortunate" and commended the "firefighter for his actions." However, citing privacy concerns, the spokesperson declined to discuss specifics of the Stones' case except to say "we are continuing to work with the family to ensure this situation doesn't reoccur and have referred their case ... to partnering agencies for assistance."
    On Friday the utility issued an updated statement.
    "This is a very unfortunate situation that we are working to rectify immediately," DTE said. "We will be working with this customer to get her the assistance she needs, which is the normal process we follow when our customers are faced with challenges in paying their bills. And we will be donating to the preferred charity of the generous and selfless firefighter who stepped up."
    McCuen, a 7½ year veteran of the fire department, heard Stone on the phone with DTE and said his choice became clear. "He had about three hours of battery life," McCuen said. "He needed to be plugged back in. So it seemed obvious what the solution was, that they needed their bill paid."
    Christy Stone was astonished at the matter-of-factness of this firefighter she didn't even know.
    "Ryan was standing there and he looks at me and goes, 'I'm going to pay your electric bill,' and I was just like -- are you serious!?"
    He was, and he did.
    Snapping a picture of her bill, McCuen paid it, all $1,023.76 of it.
    What started as a routine call turned Ryan McCuen into one family's hero.

    A struggle to make ends meet

    Stone and her husband, Guy, had been struggling for years to make ends meet. Together they have five children, and two of them suffer from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare genetic condition affecting mostly males.
    Stone watched her brother die from the disease and her son, who was otherwise healthy until he was around 8 years old, is now in steady decline; the muscles throughout his body, genetically robbed of a crucial protein, slowly ebbing away. Stone's 15-year-old son Tyler, now using a wheelchair, suffers the same condition.
    Guy Stone, who works in shipping and receiving, was out of work for a year-and-a-half. He's been back at work for a year but with five kids, two with extreme health issues, catching up has not been easy.
    In January, his pay was garnished because a car was repossessed when he was unemployed. That started a slide into further financial instability, the family sinking a little further into debt every month. They've had help along the way from friends and family, a local church and other organizations helping with everything from house and trailer-lot payments to food.
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    When McCuen stepped up and paid the bill, it sparked a more sustained round of giving. McCuen wanted to keep his deed anonymous at first but also wanted the family to get help.
    Clinton Township Fire Chief Michael Phy stepped in when he heard what his firefighter had done. "I asked his permission if maybe I could drop his name to local media and maybe start getting the story out there," Phy said. "It wasn't so much recognizing Ryan, but it was really centered around the family and trying to get them some needed assistance."
    After a story ran in the local newspaper more help arrived. One local company paid the electricity bill for the next six months. A generator was donated and installed so even if the power goes out in a storm the family can keep the life-support machines running.
    The family is also trying to raise $100,000 for a new handicapped transport van through a Go Fund Me page. After McCuen's deed, donations to the website went from $900 to $14,600. As of Friday afternoon, the Go Fund Me page had topped $26,000.
    McCuen's action is all the more inspiring considering he wasn't in the best position to shell out over a thousand bucks. McCuen himself had been laid off for four years, in the wake of the recession.
    From 2008 to 2010, Clinton Township Fire Department saw its staff go from 99 people to 64. McCuen was one of those statistics.
    "Everything around here suffered," said Phy. "Not only did we lose people, but everything suffered."
    The fire department slowly turned things around thanks to a brighter economy and help from two federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grants administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a special local tax increase aimed directly at helping the fire department.
    McCuen returned to work in 2014 and last year married his longtime sweetheart, Andrea. Three months ago, they had their first child, Camilla. "I told Camilla, your dad just helped a family who needed it," said Andrea. "He never surprises me when he does something nice. It's Ryan."
    Troy Stone suffers from a rare genetic condition.

    'Ryan is my hero'

    Despite his new family and getting back on his feet, McCuen didn't hesitate. "She had a lot going on," said McCuen. "Taking him to the hospital just creates another bill for these people."
    Troy Stone is ever-smiling despite his serious medical condition; even when the electricity went out, sending his ventilator to its battery backup and deflating his air mattress.
    "The whole bed just went 'pffft,' he just sunk in the bed. And he still had a smile on his face," Stone said.
    Alternating between laughter and tears, Christy Stone said what McCuen did still amazes her. "There are many, many very good human beings out there," she said. "No matter how bad it's gotten. I'm still speechless. It's like a dream. I can't believe any of this is happening."
    Troy, who is unable to speak above a whisper, mouths lots of words his mother can easily interpret. He said he is not afraid of whatever the future holds. As we spoke, his mother mostly interpreting, he was able to raise his voice just enough to unmistakably utter the words, "Ryan is my hero."