by Kelly Gregory
In the summer of 2006, my best friend Terri began experiencing abdominal pain. She ignored it. When she could no longer ignore it, she tried treating it with over the counter medications. Terri was self-employed, a single mother to a child with diabetes, and without health insurance. She had been without health insurance for a decade, since her divorce. When the pain grew to the point she could no longer stand it, she found a clinic with a sliding scale and went. It was the week before Christmas, the week before her 48th birthday on Christmas Eve.
That afternoon, the clinic called her at home and told her to report to the hospital emergency room immediately. She did and was rushed into surgery. Terri had a tumor in her colon so large it was blocking her entire bowel. When the surgeons opened her up, they found tumors wrapped around her uterus and ovaries, on her liver, and her stomach. The surgeons did what they could, stitched her up and told her to go home and settle her affairs, she had less than six months to live.
Terri found a good oncologist and a clinical trial kept her alive for another two and half years. She died in the early summer of 2009, just before the Affordable Care Act was introduced in Congress. My best friend died because she lacked access to regular check ups and cancer screenings.
When she died, I vowed she would be the last American to die because they were too poor to see a doctor. The Affordable Care Act was passed by the U.S. Senate on Christmas Eve, 2009, on Terri’s 51st birthday. I wept as I watched the signing ceremony. I knew the bill had flaws but it was the first step toward making sure every American had access to the healthcare they needed.
I knew what it was like to have no choice but to go without healthcare insurance. Before the recession, I worked in a family business. I paid for my own health insurance. But in 2003, I had a series of heart attacks, at the age of 33. I learned I had a rare red blood cell mutation that caused blood clots. My insurance premiums doubled, and then they doubled again, in the next two years. Eventually, I had no choice but to drop the insurance.
In the winter of 2011, at the age of 41, I found a lump in my left breast. I was looking for my next job, a single mother with a child in college, and without health insurance. I pushed the thought of serious illness out of my mind.
In April, when I could no longer ignore what was happening, I went through the process of trying to find a doctor who would see me soon, as a new patient, without insurance. I had a yard sale to raise the money. It took two months to find a doctor I could afford and a timely appointment. It was June and the lump in my breast had doubled in size and had adhered to the side of my breast.
On June 30, breast cancer was confirmed and I was accepted into TennCare. More tests came and the diagnosis was Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer. The cancer had spread to my spine. If treatment wasn’t effective, I had less than a year.
Treatment was effective and I am still alive, five and a half years later. But cancer is going to kill me, eventually. Because I did not have access to regular check ups and health screenings, my disease wasn’t found sooner. I’m not going to be around to take care of my parents as they get older or be around to see my daughter get married and raise a family. I’m not going to be around to start a successful business or create jobs. All because I was too sick and too poor to afford health insurance.
I love my country. I love my community. I served in the military during a war. I taught Sunday School and volunteered for charities. I know if we work together, if we work with compassion and love toward all, we can solve the health care puzzle. We can make it affordable for all and open to all.
Let me be the last American to die because I couldn’t afford health insurance.
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