Now 18, Reston’s Ayrton Climo caught the racing bug at 10, when he first took a spin around the inside go-kart track at Allsports Grand Prix in Sterling. The recent South Lakes High School graduate eventually moved up to racing in World Karting Association events, ever aware of the dangers of zipping Formula One-style mini-cars around tight, curving tracks at speeds up to 70 miles per hour, his parents said.
Those dangers changed his life on Aug. 1, on a kart track in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec. During a practice run he crashed into hay bales on a 90-degree turn, was thrown from his kart and struck by other karts. He did not break a single bone, but he suffered a traumatic brain injury and has been in a coma ever since. His condition is improving, his parents said, and he has been moved out of intensive care. His parents, architect Edward Climo and Chantilly High School teacher Lisa Climo, said their son is showing signs of consciousness, but the extent of his brain damage is unknown. The next step will be transferring the teen back to a hospital in this area for perhaps two years of rehabilitation, but when that will happen, and whether the Climos will have to dig into their own pockets to pay for it while they tussle with their insurance company, remains uncertain.
In addition to piloting high-powered go-karts, Ayrton Climo was a varsity soccer player at South Lakes, a first-chair cellist and a ukulele player as comfortable with Vivaldi as Led Zeppelin, his father said. But racing was Ayrton’s passion, and “Ayrton was having the time of his life, doing what he loved most, up to the moment it all happened,” his father said.
Ed Climo became a racing fan in college, first while studying the design of cars in architecture school, then watching Formula One races on weekend mornings from Europe. When he and his wife were thinking about names for their child, Climo noted that there were a lot of cool names in Formula One — Emerson, Niki, Ayrton. Lisa Climo liked Ayrton. When the boy was born on the same day as Ayrton Senna, the late Formula One driver from Brazil, the deal was sealed.
Ayrton grew up on Lake Anne in Reston, attended his first race at 10 when he saw a Grand Prix race in Indianapolis, and began racing competitively not long after his first run in Sterling. Last year, he finished in the top 10 in several races against some of the nation’s best kart drivers. This summer, anticipating entering James Madison University this month, he scaled back the number of races, but in the spring he won a pre-final race at New Jersey Motorsports Park and came in second in the final. So Ayrton and his father decided to go for one last event, Le Monaco de Trois-Rivieres, Canada’s biggest karting event.
In the Friday practice sessions on Aug. 1, Ed Climo said Ayrton’s runs appeared to have him as the fastest American in the field. The track was tight with many barriers, but because of Ayrton’s experience running indoors at places like Allsports in Sterling, “he was actually very experienced driving close to barriers,” Ed Climo said. Before his final run, Ayrton told his dad, “I got this.”
Ed Climo said Ayrton was flying around the track, but he lost sight of his son as he entered turn 6. As the karts left the turn, Ayrton’s was not among them. He ran down to the track and saw his son lying in the middle of the course. “It was the most horrifying thing a parent could see,” Ed Climo said. Witnesses told him that after Ayrton landed on the pavement, oncoming karts had nowhere to go and no chance of avoiding him.
A top hospital, Regional Hospital Center, was within sight of the race track, a neurosurgeon happened to be on duty, and Ayrton was on the operating table within an hour, his mother said. A part of the teen’s skull was removed in order to relieve pressure on his swelling brain. It has not yet been reattached, and Ayrton was placed in a medically induced coma.
Lisa Climo caught a ride from Reston with a parent of another racer and arrived in Trois-Rivieres the next morning. Besides the horror of seeing her only child in intensive care, Lisa Climo soon began to work through the complications of insurance coverage for an incident which occurred far from home. Her family is insured through her Fairfax County schools policy, and Fairfax is self-insured, though it uses CareFirst, Aetna and Kaiser as administrators of its policies.
Initially, Lisa Climo said she was told CareFirst would not cover her son’s treatment at all, but that was later reversed. Ayrton Climo began to improve, and last week he was moved out of intensive care. Each day, Lisa Climo said, there are small signs of improvement — a squeezed hand, a thumbs up. His doctors have said he can soon be moved back to the D.C. area, either by air or ground transportation.
But the Climos said CareFirst and Fairfax County, which as the self-insurer has ultimate say on the policy, have denied coverage for the transport home. Ayrton can rehabilitate in Quebec, the Climos were told. The policy with CareFirst does not cover international transport home, they said. Insurance experts said this is not surprising — some policies cover such a situation, some do not, said Clare Krusing of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the trade association of health insurers. It’s true. A Fairfax teacher I know who is insured through Aetna checked, and he also is not covered. I checked my policy through Aetna, and I am covered.
Lisa Climo, stunned, has been pushing Fairfax County schools to step in, to make an exception as the self-insurer. Fairfax schools officials said Friday they could not discuss the case without a waiver from the Climos, but that the insurance companies typically handle all the decisions on coverage, and that customers can appeal decisions.
Reid Rasmussen, a former health insurance executive (and former Canadian) who now consults for employers and provides help for consumers, said, “From an insurance standpoint, it sounds like they’re doing the right thing in that this was not part of the insurance plan, so they’re not paying for it.” He said if Fairfax makes an exception, “the cost of that would have to be borne by the other teachers when their rates go up next year.” He and Krusing both said that anyone who is traveling should check their policy to see what is covered if something happens outside the country. Ed Climo said checking their insurance hadn’t occurred to the family. “This was just another racing weekend,” he said, “this just happened to be across the border.”
The racing community, which Ed Climo said is unique in the way that competitors help each other before races, has stepped up to raise money in the event the trip back to this area isn’t covered. The cost is expected to be $20,000 or more, and the family also has incurred the cost of living in a hotel in Quebec for the last three weeks and Ed Climo’s lost income as an architect. There will also be perhaps two years of rehabilitation for Ayrton.
So a racing family in Ontario set up a website, “Keep Fighting Ayrton,” to raise money for both the transportation and the family’s costs, and so far the site has raised more than $10,000. Lisa Climo said it was typical of the family atmosphere of kart racing, and that many drivers and parents had visited Ayrton in addition to helping raise money.
The fact that the crash occurred in Quebec may be the coincidence that gets Ayrton back to Virginia. French is the primary language in Quebec, including among medical staff at Regional Hospital in Trois-Rivieres. Ayrton’s doctor has told the Climos that he would not suggest a traumatic brain injury patient attempt to rehabilitate in a foreign language, particularly if he has to relearn his own speech. He will recommend that the young American be returned to his native land, Ayrton’s parents said.
Each day, recently, Lisa Climo has seen encouraging signs, and Ayrton is breathing on his own. “He opened his eyes for me,” she said Thursday. “But it’s a very long process. It’s like the brain has to reboot. You just don’t know how it will. And it might not.” She would prefer not to find out in Canada.