Friday, July 6, 2012

Dying For Affordable Healthcare

Three years ago I was diagnosed with cancer of the throat. It’s a nasty business, cancer, and when you hear the news you think: “what do I do now?” and then “let’s start doing it, now.” In a little town like Key West, people being treated for cancer get to know each other. In waiting rooms we swap remedies for the horrific burns, sores and weakness that come of treatment. I paid 37 visits to the radiology clinic, and there I was friended by two men dealing with the same cancer. The younger one, Jeff, was an independent contractor house painter, around 40 years old. The other, Cecil, about my age, was a musician. Neither had health insurance, so, in addition to being stripped of any and all energy, and thus the ability to work at their jobs, they both struggled to find ways of paying for their treatments. Cecil had a wife. Mrs. Cecil was bright and personable and devoted to her husband’s recovery. She also worked fulltime, as a bartender. Her job offered no benefits like insurance. Cecil’s treatments were paid for by Medicaid. And all of their savings. Not long after we three started, the radiation ruined Cecil’s teeth. Mrs. Cecil talked of her frustration in searching for a dentist to perform the indignity of pulling his teeth and fitting him with dentures at a price they could afford. They finally found him in Miami, and were forced to pay for it out of pocket. Medicaid did not help with that expense. It was a real hardship. Less than a year later, Cecil’s cancer returned and he died.

     Jeff, the youngest in our throat cancer trio, was surprisingly chipper during our radiation treatments. Aside from a rosy hue to the skin on his neck, he did not seem to be as horribly affected as Cecil and me. The standard treatment for throat cancer is chemotherapy and radiation, both at the same time. It’s quite gruesome. It’s chemo in the morning and radiation in the afternoon with breakfast, lunch and dinner served through a tube implanted in the stomach. One day I asked Jeff how he was doing with the chemo. He told me that he wasn’t having chemotherapy yet because he was waiting for Medicaid to approve it. Rather than wait for the go-ahead from Medicaid for standard treatment, his doctors had advised him to go ahead with the radiation, to do at least something to keep the cancer from spreading. And so he did. He had half the treatment, and waited for the slow-moving wheels of Medicaid to grind out an approval to pay for the other half of the life-saving equation, which was chemotherapy.

     Five months after I finished radiation and chemo, my cancer returned. I had surgery and more chemotherapy, and finally the cancer was arrested. Meanwhile, Jeff gave up the struggle of being treated for cancer in Florida and returned to his family home in Connecticut.  I read his obituary in the Key West Citizen a few months later. Somewhere in that horrible season another local man was diagnosed with throat cancer. He’d been gainfully employed, and health insured, for many, many years. The economy had changed all that, his insurance had run out, and he was back in school to learn a new trade when the cancer diagnosis came. He had a wife, a car, a home, grown kids, a life rich in years well spent, most notably as a beloved, volunteer soccer coach. In spite of all he and his artist wife had done right, they were without health insurance. They scrambled to rearrange their lives and their savings to make themselves eligible for Medicaid. There were fundraising parties. There was much sympathy and horror all around. After all, we are a community of artists and hand-to-mouth living citizens – the coach brought the truth sharply into focus; this could happen to any of us. Not long after his shocking diagnosis, and just before he dove into the real hard and nasty part of his treatment, the beloved coach died. Why he died is unclear. One morning he just didn’t wake up. Heart attack? Or broken heart?

    I was working for a national corporation when I was diagnosed with cancer, but I’d only been working there for a few months and the insurance company questioned whether or not my cancer had been pre-existing. Ultimately I was able to prove that I’d not surreptitiously gotten myself hired in order to have health insurance and be treated for cancer. My husband mercifully spared me from the bills around my cancer. But I did take a peek at the year-end statement from my insurance company. It said my cancer had cost them over $100,000.
     The last time I saw my oncologist he said he would make no promises about how long my remission would last. But he did tell me this: “Cancer returns on the day your health insurance runs out. Do not be without health insurance.” And so I work a job that provides health insurance because I am quite literally terrified of being without it. Dying for lack of health insurance seems to me like drowning just off Mallory Pier, at Sunset, with crowds of American tourists watching you, sorry for your struggle, but too frightened of drowning themselves, too concerned with their own survival, to dive in and help.

What the world needs now is love:

1 comment:

  1. Wow, that is a heart felt story you've got there. I think its amazing what you are doing. We all need an affordable dentist. West Island might have something that will work with your insurance.