After A Couple Were Taken Hostage In Mexico, One Star Knew He Had To Get Involved

It’s fall 2019, and the cruise ship Carnival Dream is off the Caribbean shore of Mexico. On board, vacationers relax in the tropical sun without a care in the world. But suddenly one of the tourists on board collapses. And it seems that he’s going to need to go to hospital.

This tourist – a man named Stephen Johnson – is suffering from diabetic shock. So, he’s sent to hospital, where he’s kept in intensive care in a facility in Progreso. Doctors there diagnose diabetes and pancreatitis, and it takes three days before he is well enough to go on the general ward.

As Johnson recovers, though, there’s some bad news to face. His treatment has brought a demand of $14,000 from the hospital. But there’s no way he can get that kind of money together. So, he and his partner Tori Austin beg for space to figure out a plan to pay. But the hospital wants the cash – and it wants it now. The couple find themselves imprisoned.

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When Ohio native Austin went on this cruise with fiancé Johnson, she couldn’t possibly have imagined what would happen. It was intended to just be a break of a few days from her job in an Atlanta rental office. She’d been living in Georgia for a few years, making her home in the Atlanta satellite city of Sandy Springs.

The two had chosen to cruise in the Carnival Dream. This massive cruise ship – among the largest vessels constructed in Italy when it was launched – is a haven of leisure. It features a water park and a mini golf course, and tourists can even enjoy an outdoor jacuzzi while they cruise.

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On Johnson and Austin’s trip, the Carnival Dream sailed out of Galveston, Texas, into the western Caribbean. The destination was Cozumel, one of Mexico’s most popular tourist spots. Millions journey there annually to enjoy a mix of beach and culture, as they can access the ruins of the Mayan civilization.

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But for the couple, the idyllic days of cruising were cut short when Johnson slipped into a coma. He hadn’t been on board long before it was discovered that he had diabetes and pancreatitis. But now it seemed that he was desperately ill, and it looked like he would need more care than was available aboard the ship.

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Carnival, the operator of the cruise ship, suggested that he should get some help in Progreso. This port is a couple of hours from Cancún and was on the Carnival Dream’s route. So, Johnson headed into a hospital there, a place where he could be treated appropriately for his illness.

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However, that treatment turned out to be costly – and Johnson didn’t have insurance that could help him pay for it. The outcome was that he was left with a hefty bill worth $14,000. The hospital wanted to get paid. And, as the couple would allege, it was willing to play rough to get its money.

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When the pair told the hospital that they couldn’t pay, they found themselves stuck in the facility. Indeed, they felt that they’d become prisoners, so hard did the staff make it for them to leave. They have alleged that the hospital closed its doors and a staff member physically prevented them from exiting.

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Austin wrote on a GoFundMe page set up to help, “They were pushing and pulling us.” And she claimed that people in the hospital even secured the windows so that she and Johnson couldn’t climb out. Worse, if they had somehow managed to escape, they were under threat of the police being involved.

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Austin told Atlanta CBS affiliate WGCL about how bad the situation had been. She said, “It’s been a nightmare. We just want to come home.” And Johnson confirmed that the hospital had indeed made him feel like a prisoner. He said, “[It’s] hell. I very much so am a hostage.”

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Hospitals milking tourists for cash isn’t rare in Mexico, the State Department claimed in May 2016. But this has been disputed by certain medical institutions in Mexico. The Amerimed Cancún Hospital, for instance, was represented by a lawyer named Gabriela Martínez Hernández. And as she put it, the hospital “never has, and never will, refuse to release a nonpaying patient for financial reasons. It is unethical, and it is against the law.”

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Martínez Hernández’s statement was prompted by the case of a couple from Lafayette, Indiana, who claimed to have been held hostage by the Amerimed Cancún Hospital. Dixie Stinson had passed out while celebrating her granddaughter’s marriage in Cancún and needed treatment. But it had been a costly affair, as she soon faced bills in excess of $100,000.

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It turned out that Stinson had been suffering from a couple blocked arteries and needed treatment at the facility. But before doctors would do anything, she had to pay about $55,000. Her daughter Mary Richardson said that after Stinson had been treated, managers at the hospital had asked for a similar amount. They apparently even menaced her with the threat of arrest if she didn’t comply.

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It should be noted that Martínez Hernández insisted, “No treatment or intervention was withheld for financial reasons.” However, Stinson’s congressman Todd Rokita had to go into action to try to free her. Finally, the family managed to get enough money together. But even after their health insurer had covered some of the costs, the experience left them significantly poorer.

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Another Atlanta area resident ran into trouble in June 2015, when her son took ill in Playa del Carmen. Angela Underwood took son Josh to Hospiten Rivera Maya, which came highly recommended. But she faced a demand for $5,000 for a doctor even to examine Josh, and then a further $20,000 for an operation to treat the appendicitis that this examination revealed.

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A hospital from the same Hospiten group went a step further, according to an Indianapolis family. Grandpa Larry Ralph told Atlanta ABC affiliate WSB-TV that it had held his premature newborn grandchild hostage for $30,000. Ralph noted, “They were threatening to put him literally on the streets – a baby in an incubator – complete strong-arm tactics.”

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British senior Joyce Kettle had a rough ride from the Mexican health system when she was faced with massive medical bills in February 2018. She was struggling to breathe on a cruise ship, and so she had to be taken to hospital in Cozumel. There, she needed a cardiac procedure that ended up being very costly.

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Although Kettle did have travel insurance, it only covered trips to Europe. Consequently, she had to pay all of her bill. Altogether, it amounted to more than a whopping $66,000. Her family was left with the struggle of gathering that money and also covering the cost of a flight home.

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Another British senior was stung by the Mexican health system in May 2016, after Colin Read started to feel discomfort in his chest on a visit to Cancún. The retiree’s insurer wouldn’t pay for his care, which meant he had to shell out more than $50,000. He, too, found himself stuck in hospital with no immediate means of escape.

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Read had been suffering from pneumonia and bronchitis. When first entering intensive care, he’d faced a demand for over $4,500, with the alternative being thrown into the street. And he’d soon gotten worse, finding himself unconscious and being sustained by a ventilator. The bills presented to his family grew the whole time.

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Still, despite all this, it’s pretty rare to find yourself held as a prisoner in a Mexican hospital. So, when it happened to Stephen Johnson, it gained some attention. Enough so, in fact, that the story was featured on ABC’s top-rating morning show Good Morning America. The report covered the whole happening, with interviews with Austin and Johnson. But what happened next couldn’t have been foreseen.

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The story had already gained plenty of traction when it aired in the Atlanta area. There, one person who’d come across the story had offered to loan the $14,000 that Johnson needed to pay off the hospital. This had prompted some excitement for the couple, but what happened next topped it by far.

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That’s because it turned out that media favorite Tyler Perry had seen the segment on Good Morning America. And he was moved by what he had seen. So moved, in fact, that he became determined to do something about the problem that the couple faced. He immediately moved into action.

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Perry is something of an entertainment all-rounder. He’s of course known for his talent in acting, which has brought him roles in Star Trek, Gone Girl and Alex Cross. But in addition to that, he’s also a producer and director. His suite of abilities even saw him declared by Forbes as entertainment’s most well compensated man back in 2011. Indeed, he reportedly made a healthy nine-figure salary in the year between 2010 and 2011.

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Perry is renowned as the character of Madea, his creation of a hardboiled senior black lady. He made her for the stage, and he wrote many other plays in the 1990s and 2000s. Some of those he converted into films, and some he filmed as they were on stage. He also took TV by storm, not least with his show Tyler Perry’s House of Payne. In 2012 he partnered up with Oprah’s network with enormous success. For the network, Perry thought up the top-rating soap The Haves and the Have Nots.

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But Perry hasn’t just kept his success to himself. No, he’s a renowned humanitarian, and he’s not slow to spread his wealth around. One example came in 2009, when he found out that 65 kids from a Philadelphia day camp had been barred by a local swimming club. He funded a trip for all of them to Walt Disney World.

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In 2019 Perry found out about a woman from the Atlanta area who’d been murdered and left a struggling family. Her name was Tynesha Evans, and Perry paid for her funeral and promised to fund college tuition for her daughter. Not long before that, Perry had gotten word that the mom of LaShun Pace – someone he’d worked with years before – was unwell. So, he made the ailing woman’s dreams come true by buying her a house.

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So, on hearing about Johnson and Austin’s troubles, Perry wasted little time in doing something. He contacted the couple and let them know that he’d take care of their bills. Although Johnson wasn’t well enough to go home straight away, at least he could now recover in the knowledge that he would soon be free to leave.

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Austin shared her feelings about Perry on Facebook. She wrote, “Today I am thankful for and will always be thankful for Tyler Perry.” And it turns out that the star had already had a following in Austin’s family. She went on to reveal, “My mom was also a huge fan of his.”

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A commenter on Austin’s post didn’t hold back. They wrote, “Tyler Perry, may God keep you in his care watch over you and your household day and night.” And she had no doubt about Perry’s provenance, writing, “God sends his Angels when you feel all hope is gone, and you feel that there is no way out.”

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This kind of charity is not totally unheard of, it turns out. A church in Dallas, Texas, sent a letter to thousands of families in 2019 that had some incredible news. Because of generous members of its congregation, the church could pay off medical debt amounting to almost $2.7 million on behalf of almost 2,400 households.

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Perry didn’t just pay the hospital bills. He also flew the couple home when the hospital gave Johnson the green light to travel. At last, Austin was able to post a snap of Johnson occupying a hospital bed, captioned, “Finally in a U.S. hospital.” Needless to say, Johnson had a huge smile for the camera.

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With the ordeal finally over, Austin could be forgiven for giving up traveling for good. However, she did no such thing – to the contrary, she couldn’t wait to set off again with Johnson. And she had nothing but praise for the Carnival cruise line, which she did not hold at all responsible.

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What’s more, Austin didn’t feel that it was a black mark for Mexico, either. She wrote, “What is going on with Stephen has nothing to do with the entire country. It has to do with this particular hospital. We were unaware that this particular hospital and administration staff have been known to take Americans’ passports and hold them for payment.”

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Austin continued, “Again, this isn’t the entire country. I’m sure another hospital would have worked something out with us, but Carnival brought us here, so who knows? I love Mexico and the culture, I’ll be back again, but will leave on my own terms. We have no ill feelings for the country or the people, just this hospital.”

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Next time, Austin might be well advised to take out travel insurance. Lots of U.S. insurers will not cover you overseas on your regular health insurance. So, part of planning a trip overseas – and particularly a place where medical treatment can be so very costly – is to shop around for overseas coverage.

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Darrica Hardy – who’d fought to get the couple back to the States – confirmed the importance of travel insurance. She wrote, “This could have happened to anyone. I was honestly ignorant to having the right insurance to travel abroad. Maybe this should be mandatory like having renter’s insurance at a community.”

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Hardy summed up the tale with her thoughts on Perry’s help. She wrote, “This is definitely a lesson learned, and a great testimony. My faith is restored in humanity, there are many people with full hearts and I pray nothing but good things, prosperity and positivity over every person who prayed for them, donated or have done anything to help this situation.”

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