Jon Fogg near his office at the Baltimore Sun
Jon Fogg didn’t give a second thought to the man he saw on a bicycle. It was around 1:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in January, and Fogg, 31, a Baltimore Sun sports editor who had just left work, was eager to find parking in Canton and get home. He grabbed a spot, got out of his car and began walking to his house. That’s when the cyclist rolled up beside him and asked for a light.
“I felt very panicked, but I’m a calm person, so I tried to play it off,” Fogg says. He politely said no, then turned away. In that moment, the guy “somehow jumped off the bike and tackled me, just in a split second like it was nothing.”
After pushing Fogg between two cars, the attacker jammed something up against him through his sweatshirt, saying it was a gun. He took Fogg’s wallet, keys and laptop—and grabbed a brick from the stack that surrounded a small tree nearby and hit Fogg in the head with it. The entire episode was probably only a minute long, but “it felt like an eternity,” says Fogg. The attacker took Fogg’s car and left him with six missing teeth, broken bones in both hands and six skull fractures.
Fogg’s subsequent medical care has led to mounting bills. Along with a three-day hospital stay, hand therapy and psychological therapy, Fogg, who has a high-deductible health plan, needed extensive dental work, including dentures, bone grafts and implants. Doctors estimate his dental bills alone could reach $20,000.
To help, Fogg’s sister, Melissa Fogg Castone, turned to crowdfunding. She started a website on GoFundMe with the goal of raising $1,000. Three months later, Fogg’s campaign has raised $37,461 through 869 donations. The response “has been way beyond anything I could have imagined,” Fogg says.
In the last few years, crowdfunding has expanded beyond creative projects. In 2012, 21 percent of families who were fully covered by public or private insurance still struggled to pay medical bills, according to a recent survey by the National Center for Health Statistics. Sites like GoFundMe that allow people to fundraise to cover medical costs—as well as funeral expenses, adoption costs and other financial stressors—seem like an ideal solution. In 2013, campaigns on GoFundMe raised a combined $128 million; this year, the site is on track to surpass $600 million. Similar websites have done well, too: FundRazr, YouCaring, and GiveForward raised $23 million, $62 million and $45 million, respectively, last year.
Fogg, who has since returned to work and relocated to Baltimore County—a move he had planned with his girlfriend since last year—continues to use the GoFundMe money to pay for his therapy sessions and ongoing dental work. “These sites are a great way to help out people whose situation you might hear about,” says Fogg, adding that many of his donors are strangers.
The sites do come with a downside though: the fees, says Columbia resident Wyntre Denne, whose GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $20,000.
Although fundraising pages are free to set up, the websites often take a 5 percent fee per donation, while their online payment processors, such as PayPal, take an additional 2.9 percent plus 30 cents per transaction. YouCaring only charges PayPal or WePay fees, while GiveForward gives donors the option of covering its fees.
Still, Denne, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2012, says that without her campaign, “I would be paying the hospital…until I die.”
Denne, 44, a real estate agent and mother of four kids, ages 11 to 21, has faced many medical issues since her initial diagnosis. After having a hysterectomy and being cleared of ovarian cancer, she began having pains in her side. Doctors found a large tumor on both her colon and her bladder and dozens of tiny tumors across her abdomen. She’s had surgery to remove the large tumors and three months of chemotherapy to attack the small tumors.
Over an egg sandwich at Cracker Barrel, Denne is lighthearted about her diagnosis, even making jokes about how she has a runnier nose since losing her nose hair during chemo. (“Just call my nose the slip and slide,” she says. “Nothing is stopping it.”) But she also admits that the physical pain and mental anguish can be overwhelming. During chemo, she crammed about 20 pill bottles on her nightstand for hot flashes, nausea and other side effects. She’s had surgery on her port six times. And she sometimes feels like a burden on her family, in part because of the financial challenges.
“You think that you can’t take it anymore,” Denne says. “Then [you find] the strength to take it to the next day.”
Although Denne doesn’t want to think about her “final bill,” she has already paid $6,500 to cover last year’s medical procedures and expects to pay a few thousand more. This year, her deductible has gone up to $3,000, and her coverage has gone down. With another surgery planned for June followed by a second round of chemo, Denne, who will have two kids in college this fall, expects higher bills.
A private person uncomfortable with asking others for money, Denne says that her friend Jennifer Swales suggested starting the GoFundMe campaign. Swales, who has since raised the campaign goal to $27,500, monitors the site and approves the financial transfers to Denne’s account.
Denne’s eyes fill up as she talks about the campaign. “It’s humbling to know that there are a lot of people who are willing to help you when you’re down and out,” she says.
The Gardner family outside of their fire-damaged home
Others like Lisa Gardner, whose house burned down earlier this year, have used crowdfunding to rebuild their lives after a disaster. Although they didn’t own the house, Gardner, 41, her husband, Chris, and their two daughters, Elizabeth, 9, and Sara, 7, lived there as caretakers of the property. During an ice storm in early February, a tree crashed into power lines, knocking out the Gardners’ power. Embracing the situation, the family was huddled in the living room next to a burning fire.
At around 9 p.m., the room filled with smoke. The Gardners opened the door for air, and the upstairs and outside smoke detectors began beeping. When Gardner tried to go upstairs, “the smoke was so thick,” she says. “It got my throat, it got my nose, it got my eyes.” Without socks or shoes, the family ran outside to the car in their pajamas, leaving everything but their wallets and keys behind.
Later, the Gardners learned that the chimney mortar had crumbled and smoldered, causing a backdraft when they opened the outside door. Half of the house burned down in six minutes, destroying the living room, the master bedroom and the attic. The next day, they salvaged only the girls’ baby blankets, a few photos and glassware pieces and some paperwork.
For Gardner, seeing the destroyed house was surreal. “You’ve got a coffee cup on the table and stuff in the fridge,” she says. “There was this life that was taking place in this house, and [we’d] been plucked out.”
The family spent the next 11 weeks in a one-bedroom suite at the Hilton Garden Inn in Owings Mills. Although their renters insurance paid for part of the hotel fees, the Gardners still had to pay a portion for their room while doling out more money to eat many meals in restaurants. They also had to buy new clothes, shoes, kitchen supplies, cleaning products, furniture and more—all at once.
Turning to FundRazr, Lisa Gardner’s ministry, The CREW Ministries, raised more than $10,000 for her family in four days. Friends raised an additional $2,000 on YouCaring.
“Without those fundraising pages, we would not have been able to keep afloat during our time at the hotel, and replace everything we lost,” Gardner says.
They also put some of the money toward a down payment on a new home in Reisterstown. Sitting on her new beige carpet on move-in day, Gardner says that the fire has given her family a fresh start. A couple of days earlier, she decorated the girls’ new rooms. Later that night, Sara was sprawled out on her own floor playing with pink and purple Legos.
“It’s something she hasn’t been able to do in a long time,” Gardner says. Seeing her like that, she adds, “I know we’re going to be OK.”