Recently, I was happy to read about a bipartisan compromise on health-care laws. A lifelong liberal, I was actually saved by a Republican congressman.
When I was working at a textbook distributor in South Jersey, my employer didn’t provide health insurance. As a 24-year-old temp/musician, medical care was not a concern. If I had an infection, my primary-care physician was paid in full and generic antibiotics were affordable. My parents were divorced and my mother had me on her plan, along with my younger sister, until I turned 23.
During an office visit for a bad cold, while I waited for prescription nose spray, my doctor noticed a small bump on the side of my neck.
I said: “It’s nothing. It’s been there awhile.”
He pushed on it. “I don’t like it, get a scan,” he said.
My mother demanded I do it right away. As a clinical microbiologist, she understood cells. She gave me her credit card to pay for the $500 scan and I pictured a minor procedure to remove the cyst. The thought of asking for another day off scared me more than surgery.
One CAT scan and MRI later, I was referred to an oncologist. My head raced with thoughts about losing my job and my life. As my mother drove us to the consult, she looked worried. We were ushered into a large office. The doctor had my file and diagnosis:
I had cancer of the lymphatic system, Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was in Stage IIB and growing.
From that small bump on my neck were two long and wide snakelike tumors growing down the inside of my body, he explained. It was barely visible outside.
My stomach went on a roller-coaster. Confused, I focused on the doctor’s words but could not process anything. I wondered if surgery was an option. The doctor read my mind. “You’ll need chemotherapy and possibly radiation,” he said. Numb, I leaned back on his couch.
When I got back to my apartment, I tried to figure out how to pay for my medical costs. The next day, my family researched every hospital sliding scale and private practice. No discount would be enough to pay for chemo, blood work, and the repeat bimonthly process. It almost totaled $100,000, which nobody had. We all kept looking.
At the time, my sister still lived at home and was an intern for a Republican congressman, Jim Saxton. “He’s one of the good ones,” she said. He cared about the environment and gun control. A lifelong Democrat, I’d been skeptical. But she went into work and asked him for any advice about my illness. I was at my mother’s for dinner when my sister walked in. “Empty whatever you have left in that savings account and quit your job tomorrow,” she said. “You need to go on public assistance.”
I was surprised. Welfare was for other people and I didn’t know anyone personally who used it. My parents had careers and my grandparents had worked from age 16.
Those “other people” now included me. Since I would be too sick to work for a few months, I left my job and went on food stamps. It was surreal. I learned which items could be purchased with that blue card. At the time, cigarettes and nonedibles were off-limits. I smoked but had no motivation to quit (I already had cancer). I bought food at the local Wawa because I was too embarrassed to shop at a supermarket.
Saxton instructed his assistant to call me and explain Medicaid. Neither he nor his assistant ever asked whom I’d voted for and I never volunteered the information.
After treatment began, I received a call from the congressman’s staff every week for months. My sister no longer worked in their office, but they still wanted to check on me. I was an individual, not a constituent from his party. They were decent people who recognized a horrible situation. If he ran today, I’d vote for him.
My parents didn’t discuss politics often and their affiliation changed with certain elections. My mother yelled, “Reagan’s pushing us into war!” or “Carter was no saint.” My father cursed every Democratic New Jersey governor over taxes. Individuals mattered.
When chemo ended and I recovered enough to work, I immediately found a job as an administrative assistant. The company handed me my first medical insurance card and I was elated. Collection agencies were calling me daily for thousands owed to the hospital. Eventually, I had to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Thankfully, I found a great job and got back on my feet. For two decades, I’ve been in remission. I’m forever grateful to my family and Jim Saxton, a moderate Republican congressman who showed understanding, compassion, and saved me.
We need to take care of each other.
Julie Charnet is a writer in Philadelphia. firstname.lastname@example.org