NORFOLK – Ryan Featherer’s insurance denied coverage for a surgery that could reduce the pain he lives with every day, but he, his students and others did not accept that. They knew it would help him be able to play with his children for more than a few minutes at a time and stop the “cocktail” of medications needed to get through each day, so they fought back together.
Now, the Norfolk orchestra teacher is getting ready for an operation that will give him his life back.
Featherer was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2003, and over the years, it forced him out of his classroom and made it difficult to keep up with his children. Few things had helped alleviate the pain.
One was a spinal cord simulator, which he received as part of a week-long Medtronic clinical trial in 2021. He said on a scale of 1 to 10, the device took his pain from a 10 to a 2 and people could see the difference . He remembers hearing that he seemed happier and more energetic.
“I could play with my kids,” he said. “We could just play for hours instead of minutes. It was great to outlast them that week. “
What also helped Featherer through the years was being in front of Maury High School orchestra students. He described the 90 minutes a day making music as his “medicine.”
“If I was out in front of my students, I was fine,” the long-time music teacher said. “I wasn’t paying attention to the pain … I was thinking about teaching music, which is what I love to do.”
However, at the end of the trial, the device was returned – and so did his pain. His said his insurance company told him the device was not considered “medically necessary,” so they wouldn’t approve the surgery. Instead, it wanted him to try physical therapy and more medication.
“When they told me no, it was like somebody took my heart out and just stomped on it,” he said.
Then, the battle began.
His students took it upon themselves to take up his fight. They reached out to the CEO of the company, and several began raising money online. Their GoFundMe page raised $ 1,000 for his surgery, which was announced at the final concert of the year in June.
“I’m in front of about 300 people, and I’m looking at them and they’re looking at me,” Featherer remembered. “I couldn’t believe this was happening.”
Another GoFundMe was later set up by Lisa Suhay, a parent of one of his students. She said Featherer was “instrumental” in helping her son, Avery Suhay, get scholarships and guided him to Old Dominion University to study music, and his dedication to his students showed in the number of musicians he inspired.
“This man is beloved by musicians across our nation who were nurtured by him,” Lisa Suhay wrote on the GoFundMe page.
Trying to get the fundraiser out there to better help Featherer, she reached out to actor Alec Baldwin. She said after hearing Featherer’s story, he agreed to share the teacher’s story on his own social media platforms. Shortly after he shared the GoFundMe, more money started coming in and suddenly, Featherer’s insurance told him part of the surgery would be covered.
As of July 5, the fundraiser had raised more than $ 25,000 to help with expenses not covered by insurance, including post-operation recovery.
Avery Suhay studies music education, in part because of Featherer’s inspiration and mentoring.
Both remembered what sparked Suhay’s interest in teaching. Featherer had a bad flare up of his MS and needed to take several weeks off. Suhay stepped up to help get the orchestra ready for a competition.
“He was like, ‘I know you can do it,’” Suhay said. “And he would support me and encourage me, and it was kind of a big step for me.”
Featherer said that when he was back with his students, Suhay approached him and said he wanted to be a music teacher, too.
“It was my moment that I’ll never forget as a teacher,” Featherer said.
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Featherer said there’s no way to thank everyone for their support the way he’d like. He has always tried to keep the focus on his students, but recently, donations and calls and texts have been flooding in. The surgery initially was postponed because he tested positive for COVID.
Now, the surgery is set for the end of July.
Kelsey Kendall, [email protected]