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Tree House helps Alaska family heal

Joss Krug needed a heart valve surgery not available in his home state of Alaska.

By Jean Jackman

Alaskans are hardy folk. They’re used to hopping on planes to travel around their state and to visit the lower 49 for recreation or vital needs.

For highly specialized medical care, that can mean a prolonged trip to the Seattle-Tacoma area.

That’s what happened with the Benefield/Krug family, not once but twice. 

“Our son needed a type of heart valve surgery that’s not available in Alaska,” says Tyler Benefield, whose son, Joss Krug, 16, recently underwent surgery at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma.

The family lives in North Pole, Alaska, 20 minutes from Fairbanks.

“Joss has had heart valve problems since the third grade,” says his mother. “He’s been monitored by cardiologists in Fairbanks ever since.”

In 2015, Joss had his first heart surgery in Seattle, a biosynthetic pig valve replacement projected to last 10 to 15 years.

“Joss did well until last November,” Benefield says. “We went back to his regular cardiologist in Fairbanks and he said the valve wasn’t working properly.”

The doctors prescribed blood thinners and kept a close eye on Joss. Then they determined he needed a mechanical valve replacement, requiring another trip to the Puget Sound, this time to Mary Bridge Children’s.

That presented some logistical challenges for the family. Where to stay? Although she has family in Washington state, her nearest relatives live in Seattle and Benefield wanted to be as close to her son as possible during his surgery and recovery.

“The Mary Bridge team was so welcoming,” she says. “They told us about Tree House and that’s where we ended up staying before, during and after the surgery. Tree House was our saving grace.”

Tree House: A Place for Families is a building of apartment suites and shared gathering areas offered by MultiCare at low cost or no charge to families of patients receiving care at Mary Bridge and Tacoma General hospitals. It is located two blocks from the hospitals. Tree House is supported by community donations of funds, food, household supplies and toys.

Benefield ended up staying two-and-a-half weeks at Tree House. During that time, other relatives — from Juneau, Seattle and Spokane — were able to come and go, also staying at Tree House.

“The first night before surgery, we sat in the family area and played Uno with Joss,” says his mom. “It was so comforting to be able to come together as a family and do normal stuff.”

Joss’s surgery was on May 29, 2019, and lasted almost six hours.

“He got the mechanical valve, which should last the rest of his life,” Benefield says. “He also has to be on blood thinners the rest of his life.”

Joss stayed for five days in the hospital and his family stayed another two weeks, Joss joining them at Tree House after he was discharged so he could be monitored by his Mary Bridge care team.

“The care was wonderful,” says Benefield. “I was very happy with everything at Mary Bridge.”

Joss Krug

Now back in Alaska, Joss is about to start his sophomore year in high school and has resumed his active life.

“Joss is doing great,” his mother says. “He had his first check-up with the cardiologist team at Fairbanks. After he passed the six-week mark, he went to the trampoline park and the county fair.”

And, while advised against contact sports because of being on blood thinners, Joss has taken up swimming again.

“Swimming is a perfect sport for someone with heart problems,” says Benefield.

Reflecting on her time at Tree House, Benefield says, “I would say to other families coming from far away: Find out what help is available and accept the help that’s offered. It makes a world of difference.”

Tree House is a safe haven for out-of-town families during a medical crisis. You can support these families in their time of need by making a gift to Tree House today.