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Mesa Group Home Cares For Fragile Native American Children

Lisa Teller has lived at the Bogden House since she was just a few weeks old when she was diagnosed with a rare digestive disorder called Microvillus Inclusion Disease.
(Photo by Laurel Morales-KJZZ)
Lisa Teller has lived at the Bogden House since she was just a few weeks old when she was diagnosed with a rare digestive disorder called Microvillus Inclusion Disease.

When Betsy Savino walks in the front door of the house, a toddler rolls out her IV pole to greet her. The little girl fakes a cry until Savino picks her up.

Two-year-old Lisa Teller, who is Navajo, can’t eat food like most toddlers. She was born with a rare digestive disorder. Her IV is her nutrition and medicine line and it’s attached directly to her bloodstream.

Lisa is among two dozen children at four medical group homes in Mesa known as the Bogden House. The kids all have intensive care needs ranging from constant ventilation, to oxygen, to tracheostomy care. Savino said some kids arrive at the Bogden House as premature infants.

“We didn’t have the technology in the past to keep kids alive so parents would just take 'em home and do the best they could,” Savino said. “And they’d live as long as they could live or they’d put them in an institution and that would be that."

"With modern technology, particularly preemies are being kept alive with home ventilators so there’s just more and more and more of them”  she said.

That means the Bogden House often has a wait list. A child with severe medical problems can be overwhelming to care for. They’re often deemed medically fragile, and need constant intensive care at home.

But what if that’s not affordable, or not possible? The Bogden House is one option. Half of the children here are from far away Indian reservations where medical facilities, equipment and specialists are harder to come by.

Savino said a lot of parents won’t or can’t deal with complex medical needs or sometimes the kids are removed from parents for neglect.

There are two other long term care facilities in Phoenix that serve children. They are staffed with respiratory therapists, doctors and pharmacies. The Bogden House gets by with far less.

“We do it by ourselves without a respiratory therapist and we fill prescriptions at an outside pharmacy,” Savino said. “So fortunately I’m a nurse practitioner so I can pinch hit a lot of the time with the kids and solve problems so we don’t have to be going to the Emergency Room all the time.”

Little Lisa Teller is waiting for a bowel and liver transplant.

“I have a bag packed ready to go,” Savino said. “She has a bag packed ready to go. And they’ve said they’ll just call and say, ‘Come to XYZ airport by such and such a time,' and they have a transport plane that flies us there.”

Lisa’s family lives on the Navajo Nation 200 miles away,

“We missed everything,” said LaTanya Dickson, Lisa’s mom. “Her first laugh, her first Christmas, her first Thanksgiving, her first tooth, her first crawl. You know that’s really heartbreaking to me.”

We spoke earlier this year outside her home in Birdsprings. They’re still trying to get running water so Lisa can eventually come home. An Los Angeles-based organization called DIGDEEP is helping them.

“I just wanted to be out there with her every day,” Dickson said. “I had no choice but just to leave her in the medical home and have them take care of her, and which they’ve done a really good job [of].”

Dickson, her husband and four other kids will pile in their truck to make the long drive down to the Bogden House once or twice a month.

“But when we first go to see her she doesn’t recognize us,” Dickson said. “We would go to try to touch her hand or try to talk to her. She’ll just look at one of the nurses on duty and like start to cry. But after the kids start to throw her toys around and make her laugh she gets used to us.”

But the family can’t always afford the gas money. The Bogden House often winds up paying for families like Dickson's to come see their kids, especially if the child is near death. Betsy Savino said she and her husband have paid for several funerals.

Recently they set up a non profit charity to help offset some of, not only the child’s costs, but the family’s.

Laurel Morales was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2011 to 2020.