Mark Samuels graduated from Boardman High School in 1985 and went on to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
He then graduated from flight school in Pensacola, Fla. and has spent the past 25 years as a navy airman, including service in Desert Storm and Afghanistan.
Six years ago, Samuels was assigned as commander officer at Andrews AFB, and following four years there, he is now commander of the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Ft. Worth, Texas.
Samuels’ military life led him to meet his wife, Jennifer, and the couple has three children, Kaitlyn, 16; Danielle, 12; and Jake, 10.
When their eldest child was just 4-months-old, the Samuels became worried that Kaitlyn would not reach for her toys. It was just two months later that doctors ordered a battery of neurological tests that revealed little Kaitlyn had a rare and very serious brain disorder.
Since that diagnosis, Kaitlyn has suffered the effects of epilepsy and cerebral palsy; and she also endures severe scoliosis.
Kaitlyn can’t speak, cannot walk by herself. Her food is blended into liquid form because she cannot chew. Left untreated, her scoliosis will get progressively worse as the curvature of her spine can diminish lung capacity, force joints to pop out of socket and could kill her by crunching internal organs.
After years of therapy and treatment, Kaitlyn seemed to shut down. She would get bored and wouldn’t participate in therapy.
Then doctors came up with a solution, a solution that proved far more effective than traditional therapy sessions.
“It is important, very important to note that the doctors came up with this solution, and it worked,” Kaitlyn’s grandfather, Terry Samuels, of Boardman said this week.
Twice a week, for 30 minutes a session, Kaitlyn would ride a horse. The experience, or exercise for Kaitlyn, would stretch her muscles, strengthen her back and legs, and kept her focused on something she otherwise had great trouble with, sitting upright.
“For us, this type of exercise is a creative form of physical therapy,” Kaitlynn’s mother, Jennifer, said.
To the government, the exercise is called ‘hippotherapy,’ a controversial designation that has allowed the feds to malign its usefulness.
For six years, the government’s health care provider, TRICARE, paid for the therapy.
That was until 2010, when a bureaucrat in Washington, D.C. decided Kaitlyn’s treatment would no longer be covered.
The Samuels appealed TRICARE’s decision and won their case in Feb., 2012.
Judge Claude R. Heiny wrote, “It is more beneficial to use the horse as a tool...because [Kaitlynn] engages her physical therapy on a horse and fails to cooperate with her treatment in a clinical setting...It would be a waste of the government’s money to pay for therapy in a traditional setting, for it would provide no benefit.” The judge ordered TRICARE to pay for the therapy.
That didn’t matter to TRICARE that ruled in Oct., 2012, despite a judge’s decision, they would continue to deny payments for the doctor-prescribed therapy, and in fact, wanted reimbursement for the horse therapy sessions the government insurance provider had already paid for.
Michael O’Bar, deputy chief of TRICARE Policy and Operations who spent 31 years as a naval aviator before retiring to join the insurance provider in 2001, ignored the judge’s recommendation, writing to the Samuels’ family that the horse therapy “has not proven safe and effective by reliable evidence.”
O’Bar’s resume, as posted on a TRICARE web site, shows the man has no medical education, but notes he “deployed aboard aircraft carriers as a fighter squadron pilot in the Pacific and Indian oceans, the South China Sea and the Gulf of Tonkin. His 15 years of Navy acquisition experience included directing the joint Navy and Air Force Air-to-Air Missile Systems Major Defense Acquisition Program at the Naval Air Systems Command.”
To Kaitlyn’s mom, O’Bar’s decision is incredulous.
“Why does it matter if I’m using a ball, a bench or a horse? Results are results.”
Kaitlyn’s dad, as a naval commander, became even more concerned over TRICARE’s denial, when he learned at least two enlisted men under his command had children with disorders similar to his own daughter.
“It became more a matter of principle,” Samuels said, recognizing as a military family he is going up against no less than the United States Department of Defense. Kaitlyn Samuels’ situation has become something of a national cause, featured in The Washington Post and as a feature story on the Mike Huckabee Show.
A well-respected international law firm, the Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Field, has offered free of charge to fight for Kaitlynn and assigned an attorney, Marcella Burke, out of their Houston office, to represent Samuels.
A Texas horse breeder and racetrack owner has come forward and agreed to pay for the horse therapy for one year. (Mark Samuels has said he wishes that contribution to go towards horse therapy for the enlisted families under his command).
And the Samuels have set-up a Facebook page “Our Military Deserve Better: Americans for Kaitlyn Samuels,” touting their cause.
“This case is so absurd that if enough people know about it, the public is going to demand that someone do something about it,” Burke says. “We have a girl that will die. This is a matter of life and death.”
In the meantime, Kaitlynn smiles, everytime she gets on her horse.