A hammer attack left him paralyzed. Seven years later, the hospital sent him a $51K bill

Yue “Alex” Kui Cen can no longer talk or walk but he feels his family’s pain.

More than seven years ago, Cen was tending to his family’s small Little Havana convenience store when a crazed attacker bashed his head in with a hammer during a robbery. Today, Cen lies on a bed in his living room, his eyes alert watching a Chinese-language newscast.

Unsightly scars spiral around the back of his head. His wife, Phuong Ly Cen, stands nearby, her eyes welling when she thinks of lost simple pleasures, like walking with their two children in a park. Cen sobs, but can say nothing to comfort her.

“I’m more angry than before,” Phuong said. “My son cries and says, ‘I don’t have a father.’ ”

The Cen family came from China and Vietnam, and even before the attack, worked around the clock to build a humble existence in Miami. If life for the Cen family has now become a suffering grind, it got even worse by a recent and unexpected letter in the mail — a bill for more than $50,000 from Jackson Health System for medical care from the four months he was hospitalized after the attack.

The bill stunned the family, which believed Florida’s victims compensation fund had long ago taken care of outstanding bills from Cen’s hospital stay in 2011 and 2012. “He’s a victim. Why are they asking him to pay?” Phuong said. “We came here for freedom, not problems. Then someone came to cause cause problems and destroyed our lives. He’s a victim.”

The Cen family’s story underscores the confusing state and healthcare bureaucracies that often challenge crime victims, let alone ones dealing with the trauma of such extreme violence and lasting medical consequences.

After inquiries from the Miami Herald, both Florida’s Bureau of Compensation and Jackson Memorial Hospital said they will work with the family to resolve the bill.

So what happened? The Office of Attorney General Ashley Moody, which oversees victim compensation, says the Cens did not submit certain paperwork to finalize a payout back in 2012. And Jackson says it referred the bill to collections, only after repeated calls and letters, something the family disputes.

“Now that we know these circumstances, we are reviewing the case again,” said Attorney General’s spokeswoman Kylie Mason.

Said Lidia Amoretti, a Jackson spokeswoman: “We are happy to again review the account, and we are working closely with the family towards a resolution.”

Miami store clerk Yue Kui Cen, in a wheelchair and unable to talk after a December 2011 hammer attack, in court alongside his wife. Miami Herald David Ovalle

Seven years ago, the attack on Cen appalled even veteran Miami detectives and prosecutors.

The culprit: Rodobaldo Sanchez, 57, a drifter with a long prison rap sheet, a Nazi swastika tattooed on his right forearm, the word “CIA” on his left. On the afternoon of Dec. 18, 2011, Sanchez walked into the store, grabbed two jugs of milk, placed them on the counter and then suddenly sprayed Cen’s eyes with Mace.

As seen on graphic surveillance video, Sanchez then stormed behind the counter, hammer in hand. He repeatedly bashed in Cen’s head before making off with his loot: a handful of cigarette cartons.

At his 2015 trial, jurors heard that Sanchez’s fingerprint was found on one cigarette carton left in the mess behind the counter. Miami detectives also found that Sanchez owned a gray shirt that was found with Cen’s blood and DNA.

Sanchez’s gray hat and bicycle also resembled ones used by the attacker shown on the video. Jurors learned that detectives found nine boxes of Marlboro cigarettes on Sanchez similar to ones stolen from the store.

Jurors convicted him of attempted murder, armed burglary and armed robbery.

During the trial, Cen himself could not testify. Instead, an associate medical examiner talked about the severity of his brain damage, presenting four boxes filled with medical records.

Rodobaldo Sanchez, flanked by lawyers Lucian Ferster (left) and Damaris Del Valle (right) in court in February 2015. Jurors convicted Sanchez of the savage hammer attack on Little Havana convenience store owner Yue “Alex” Kui Cen in December 2011. Miami Herald David Ovalle

The vicious hammer blows drove portions of his skull directly into his brain.

At Jackson Memorial’s Ryder Trauma Center, emergency surgeons had to remove portions of his skull to relieve the swelling of his brain. He had multiple surgeries and was in a medically induced coma. Doctors wound up replacing part of his skull with a plastic prosthesis.

In all, he spent nearly four months in the hospital. The brain damage left him unable to use his legs, or his left arm. He is conscious, but cannot talk or comprehend words, according to a Medical Examiner’s report.

The total cost of his treatment at Jackson Memorial was hundreds of thousands of dollars. The majority of the costs were covered by the family’s health insurance, Preferred Medical. But still, the family was on the hook for $51,387.21.

Phuong put in a claim with the Bureau of Victim Compensation, which sent a letter to the family in November 2012 saying they were eligible for help and once the bureau paid, “you should not be billed again for those services.”

She believed the letter meant the family was in the clear. Mason, the AG spokeswoman, said the Cens never sent in paperwork indicating that its health insurance had paid some of the costs. “Our Victim’s Compensation program is only authorized to make payments after all other payments have been exhausted, including personal health insurance and worker’s compensation payments,” Mason said.

Phuong said she never got any letters telling her to send in additional paperwork. “We didn’t know that,” Phuong said.

The family’s plight is not unusual, said Christopher Marlowe, a Miami lawyer who specialized in crime victim claims.

Alex’s Mini Mart
A man bicycles past Alex’s Mini Mart in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood in December 2011. The owner of the now-defunct business, Yue “Alex” Kui Cen, suffered severe brain damage when an attacker hit him in the head with a hammer. Roberto Koltun El Nuevo Herald

“It can be really difficult for those who don’t know how to navigate the healthcare universe,” said Marlowe, who is not involved in the case. “Big bureaucracies pop up and there is a lot of paperwork.”

What the Cens did not know was that Jackson Memorial Hospital sent the bill to collections, which is handled by a separate county division. Phuong said the family — which has lived in the same Little Havana home since 2002 — never got any bills in the mail until late last month, seven years after he was discharged.

“Please do not make further action necessary,” the bill said. “Take care of this today, it is the right thing to do.”

In a statement to the Herald, Jackson said “we sympathize with the hardships” of the Ken family, but said “our records also show bill statements were mailed to the Cen residence multiple times, and that phone calls were also made regarding the outstanding bill. Only after those efforts — and no record of any calls or questions from the family — was the account referred for collections.”

After the Herald inquired about the bill, Jackson’s finance department said it will meet with Phuong to discuss the case.

For now, the sudden bill is looming over the family, which worries it could result in a lien on their house.

Money is a constant worry. Phuong ran the store for about 3 years after the attack, but closed it when the burden became too much.

Cen’s day-to-day healthcare is covered by Medicare and Medicaid. A nurse comes by daily to check on him. Wracked by frequent pain in his body, Cen takes 10 medications daily.

Every month, he visits a series of specialists who monitor his kidneys and blood sugar. Last year, he was hospitalized a few times for kidney infections.

For now, the Cens live on about $1,000 a month in disability. Luckily, their house is paid off, but money is always tight. Phuong cares for her husband full time, and works on weekends packing take-out food at a Chinese restaurant to make ends meet.

On weekends, their children pitch in, helping their dad eat, change the channel and stay comfortable in the reclining bed. Their son is 15 years old. Their daughter is 19 and studying at Florida International University.

“If this had not happened,” Phuong said, “my kids would have a better life.”