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For Dale and Theresa Gelster, it would be a relief to never again have to see the inside of a hospital.

But such thoughts are a luxury when you have three children with chronic ailments that require constant medical attention. It's an emotional and financial drain on the family.

The Buffalo couple's oldest son, 12-year old Dale Jr., copes with a learning disability and emotional problems.

Five-year-old daughter Lisa has a mild form of cerebral palsy and suffers a slight hearing loss, speech impediments and other developmental problems that are related to her premature birth.

Nine-year-old Christopher is the most severly afflicted. He, too, has cerebral palsy, slight mental retardation and severe food allergies. He also suffers from chronic reflux related to a gastrointestinal defect that induces several bouts of projectile vomiting throughout the day, his mother confided.

"We are stressed," said Mrs. Gelster. "Chris takes up a lot of our time. In this month alone he's been in the hospital three times."

And that's not counting his most recent stay in Children's Hospital two weeks ago when Chris was admitted for surgery to correct a malformed esophagus and stomach. He was released earlier this week.

While most of the family's medical expenses are covered by Medicaid, there are hidden, non-medical costs associated with spending so much time in the hospital. For Mrs. Gelster, particularly, the hospital has become a home away from home.

"I have to spend $50 a month on parking alone because Children's (Hospital) doesn't validate parking," said Mrs. Gelster.

Without a vehicle of her own, Mrs. Gelster often must borrow her mother's.

"There are 13 different clinics that I have to take Chris to. Lisa goes to several, and Dale Jr. goes to four. I consider myself lucky to be able to share a car with my mother," Mrs. Gelster said.

Her husband, a former dock worker, is sidelined from work after shattering his right kneecap in an accident two year ago. The family is supported on his Supplemental Security Income and Workers' Compensation benefits.

They don't go far enough, the couple said. They have numerous bills and two mortgages on their West Side home.

"We're hoping to consolidate (their bills)," Mrs. Gelster said.

The family receives some support services from agencies such as the United Cerebral Palsy Association that attend to their children's special needs, but the family is ineligible for food stamps.

Karen Boehler is a family counselor with Concerned Ecumenical Ministry, 286 Lafayette Ave., a non-profit agency that has provided the Gelsters with a Thanksgiving dinner and is offering other assistance. Ms. Boehler said it is families like the Gelsters that often fall through the cracks.

"In terms of medical things, they have the support services they need. The need they have now is financial, so mom and dad know they can care for their children, but that's not an easy problem to solve," Ms. Boehler said.

"With children that are chronically ill, so there's so many expenses that come up," she added.

Chris, for example, is either allergic to or cannot digest many foods and must stick to a special diet.

"He's on a soft diet, but he's sort of sick of it. He mostly eats mashed potatoes and baby food, and he has to use a small spoon or he'll (regurgitate)," said Mrs. Gelster, who admits to washing clothes several times a day because of Chris' reflux problem.

To promote weight gain, the child drinks an expensive dietary supplement, the cost of which is covered by Medicaid.

Both Christopher and Lisa attend School 84, a school for severely handicapped children on Olympic Avenue behind Erie County Medical Center. Dale Jr. attends Buffalo Science Magnet School 59.

"He's very supportive of his younger brother and sister. If other kids try to make fun, he tells them, 'Live in my house for just one day,' " Mrs. Gelster said.

Though they'd like to be able to provide more for their children at Christmas, the couple is committed to catching up on bills. Mostly, their hope is to be together.

"Christmas will be hard. I'm praying my son won't be in the hospital. I'm praying he will be home for Christmas," Mrs. Gelster said.

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