(Author’s note: Stacy Clutterman’s story and medical condition are true. She asked that her name and location be changed to protect her privacy.)
Just about every child has heard it. Mom commands, “Stand up straight! You’ll grow up crooked!”
Five-year-old Stacy Clutterman heard that repeatedly. Yet, try as she might, she just couldn’t stand straight because it was too painful. Eventually mother and daughter went to a doctor who was a doubter. “He said my pain was because I wouldn’t stand up straight,” the patient said, looking back almost 40 years later. “No one would consider any other reason.”
Nevertheless, the doctor fitted the youngster with a back brace. That helped, but the child grew from being a little girl who couldn’t stand straight without help into a woman told year after year not to slouch. Her childhood nuisance would lead to crippling illness in adulthood and a painful battle for disability compensation.
However, thanks to a friend-of-a-friend referral to Allsup Inc., the nation’s leading Social Security disability representation company, Ms. Clutterman is now collecting her full disability payments.
The happy ending was a long time coming. It turned out that bad posture was the least of Ms. Clutterman’s problems. What seemed to be minor ailments were actually warning signs of a major disability in the making. She dealt with ever increasing pain and inconvenience throughout her 25-year career — completing medical training and progressing to licensed practical nurse and then registered nurse. Most of her jobs were at correctional facilities, not for the faint of heart or bad of back.
No one would believe she was in pain. “I was told to just stand up straight, and everything would be fine,” she said. “I had to lie down in the break room to ease the hurt so I could finish my shifts.”
She eventually was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr syndrome, a virus that often leads to symptoms of infectious mononucleosis. That led to fibromyalgia, an arthritis-related condition characterized by generalized muscular pain and fatigue. Because its symptoms are quite common and laboratory tests are generally normal, it was just Ms. Clutterman’s luck that people with fibromyalgia were once told their condition was “all in their head.” However, medical studies have proven that fibromyalgia does indeed exist, and it is estimated to affect about two percent of the U.S. population today.
Remembering that she would sleep 18 to 23 hours a day, Ms. Clutterman looks back now and says, “I didn’t have good insight into how sick I truly was. A friend of mine did, and took me to a primary care doctor who did neurological testing, and as a nurse, I knew I was failing miserably. At that point, I just broke down and cried. My mother had to move in with me to help pay my bills.”
Epstein-Barr and fibromyalgia notwithstanding, neither would explain why Ms. Clutterman developed chronic severe pain, muscle spasms in her shoulders and back and a 56-degree curvature of her spine.
“My rheumatologist, who was treating me for fibromyalgia, went out on a limb for me, prescribing more and more narcotics until he became concerned,” she said. “He referred me to a pain clinic.”
The first contact turned out to be another bad experience. “They told me I was nothing but a drug-addicted nurse,” Ms. Clutterman said. “I got dressed and left rather than stay for treatment.”
Another referral had put her under the care of a surgeon who specializes in spinal disorders. He was the one who finally pinpointed the problem that apparently plagued Ms. Clutterman since infancy: Schmorl’s nodes. These small vertical herniations within the spine are actually common. Many people have a few of them. Stacy Clutterman, however, had Schmorl’s nodes by the hundreds, and her suffering grew more intense by the day. The surgeon agreed to use his pain management department to delay back surgery.
She tried to continue work at a Colorado correctional facility, putting off back surgery as long as she could until she completed her one-year probation on the job to quality for full medical coverage. But with three months to go, in March 2004, she was dismissed.
With only COBRA insurance to cover her and so stooped over she could hardly breathe, Ms. Clutterman agreed to have massive surgery on her spine in June 2004. Before she was rolled out of the operating room, her surgeon had implanted three rods, 14 screws and a couple of metal cages for her bone to grow into. Experimental drugs would help bone grow over bone.
She stayed in the hospital for nine days, most of them in intensive care because she could not get her pain under control. “I’d wake up screaming from the muscle spasms,” she said. “My knees buckled from the pain.”
While grateful to her doctor, she still told the surgeon, “The operation was a success, but the patient died.” She finally accepted the fact that she couldn’t go back to work, which was what she really wanted to do.
In November 2004, Ms. Clutterman made her first application for temporary Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. However, the SSA denied her claim, just as it does for about 60 percent of all initial applications. Unwilling to give up, she called lawyers who advertised on television. “I couldn’t get anyone to even call me back,” she said. “By that time, my COBRA had run out, and I was left holding the bag. I thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’ It was truly a nightmare.”
But then her fortunes changed. Her roommate had a friend in Houston, Texas, where the friend’s mother used Allsup in her SSDI case with a positive outcome. “I said if this company does nothing but help people receive disability coverage, I’ll call and see what they say,” Ms. Clutterman said. She called Allsup in May 2006.
She learned that Allsup Inc. is the nation’s leading SSDI representation company. CEO and founder Jim Allsup started his company in 1984, after working for the Social Security Administration, to help people just like Stacy Clutterman collect SSDI benefits. A nationwide company with headquarters in Belleville, Ill., near St. Louis, Allsup’s success rate is a staggering 97 percent.
The company is so highly regarded that, in October 2006, the Better Business Bureau presented Allsup its Torch Award for excellence in customer service. Since 1984, the disability advocacy company has helped tens of thousands of people obtain more than $1.3 billion in SSDI and Medicare benefits.
“I was impressed with that 97 percent success rate,” Ms. Clutterman admitted. “Although I was very leery of dealing with an out-of-state company they were very reassuring and it seemed like they were in my home town. They told me if my case went to a hearing, they’d fly someone down to represent me.”
Personal representation is an Allsup trademark because most local attorneys handle few disability claims. Allsup representatives, on the other hand, appear before administrative judges all the time. They take pride in knowing their cases and being prepared.
Ms. Clutterman saw Allsup’s professionalism and skill firsthand when she and Mario Cobiello, an Allsup senior representative, went to her administrative hearing April 18. It was almost a year after Allsup agreed to handle her case, followed by months of research and preparation. Already a tough road, it was made even more difficult when county doctors were reluctant to open medical records of a patient no longer receiving COBRA.
Mr. Cobiello and other Allsup people, meanwhile, reassured Ms. Clutterman all would go well. “I was impressed with the service I was getting and the knowledge of everyone involved,” she said. “As a nurse, I know my case is very complex, yet everyone was knowledgeable, polite and courteous. They were always Johnny on the spot with any of my questions and problems and issues that came up along the way.
“The continuity of care was incredible, considering that my case was so complicated,” she said. “Allsup people stayed in touch with letters and phone calls. I couldn’t ask for more all the way around.”
It turned out she was in good hands from the start. “Financially, I could see she wasn’t doing very well,” said Mr. Cobiello, who represents an average of 14 Allsup clients per month at administrative hearings. “She had back surgery, but it wasn’t successful. The information we collected from all the medical resources was solid.”
As soon as Allsup passed Ms. Clutterman’s file to Mr. Cobiello, “I started working on it,” he said. “We needed to make sure we had everything we needed to know about the case.”
Ms. Clutterman said she “was extremely nervous” going into the hearing, especially because it was conducted on a video link. However, her Allsup representative eased her fears. Indeed, she was taken aback by how well he knew every detail.
“Going in, I had already decided that even if I had not gotten a favorable decision, I would still say no one else would have or could have done a better job for me than Allsup,” she said. She was particularly amazed by her representative at the hearing.
“I don’t know if Mario is a super genius with a photographic memory and a medical degree under his belt, but he knew everything through and through,” she said. “It was more than obvious that he hadn’t read my file just the night before. He showed up ready, willing and more than able to challenge, dispute or correct anything the judge might have to say.”
However, there were no challenges or disputes. To the contrary, Ms. Clutterman said, “The hearing went extremely well. Mario seemed to have a very good professional rapport with the judge, and the judge had done her homework, too.”
Mr. Cobiello, indeed, drew from his familiarity with the administrative judge. “I knew the information she liked and was looking for,” he said. “That made it easy for everyone, including my client.”
The hearing lasted less than a half hour. “I got the impression the judge would decide in my favor,” Ms. Clutterman said. On April 27, the judge released her favorable decision, ordering SSDI payments retroactive to March 1, 2004.
Stacy Clutterman will continue to have physical pain, but she jumps at the chance to sing Allsup’s praises. “I wish I had known about Allsup from the start,” she said. “They did what no one else would have done for me.”