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Constance Alexander: Healthcare costs, lack of compassion in Washington darken last days of 2017

My first interview with Theresa was published December 21, 2000. That story recounted her history: Thirteen years after she successfully battled breast cancer, she was diagnosed with ovarian. Since her bout with breast cancer earned her the dubious distinction of having a “pre-existing condition,” she simply could not afford health insurance.

Ovarian cancer demanded a grueling – and costly — regimen. The money she had so painstakingly put away in an Individual Retirement Account became a liability. At the same time, she was worried about her hair falling out, she wondered if she would be able to muster the strength to continue making enough money to support herself.

When well-meaning friends advised her to quit the part-time teaching job she’d been fortunate enough get to supplement her income from self-employment, she refused. “That would be giving up,” she told them.

From one arduous chemotherapy session to another, readers followed Theresa’s story. Together we learned that, depending on the pharmaceutical company, some assistance was available to patients who could not afford to pay for treatments that can run as high as $4000 each. (Theresa  needed six of them.)

Even in the midst of a bad situation, Theresa was always the first one to point out the cloud’s silver lining. The way she put it, the longer she lived, the closer researchers were to a cure. She had never been refused medical treatment because of her financial situation, and as bills piled up, creditors were willing to accept a schedule of payments over time. Her brother said he would help her too, but she hated the idea of being a burden to her sibling.

“I’ve always paid my way,” she said in that first interview, and she continued to do that throughout her illness.

When it was obvious that every treatment option had been exhausted, Theresa signed up for hospice care. She worried that her friends and family would feel she was letting them down, but she’d done everything possible to get well. She was at peace.

After that, she spent her days at home in her trailer in Trigg County. Friends and family pitched in to run errands, clean house, and take care of the business she could no longer manage. Her beloved dog Rudy stayed by her side, a great source of “comfort and comic relief,” Theresa said.

When she wanted to write a Christmas e-letter to all the people who had helped her, I wrote her words down and entered them in the computer. She started out by saying she wished she could write something personal to each one.

“It makes my days easier,” she confessed, “to know there are so many people in different places thinking of me. When I’m really down in the dumps,” she continued, “I can draw on those memories.”

She explained that her disease was progressing, but she was still able to do some of the things she enjoyed. Her voice did not waver while she dictated, even when she apologized for the letter not sounding happier. But there was a catch in her throat when she declared, “You should know I am happy and content with the life I’ve had.”

After the letter was finished, we watched the sunset out her kitchen window. Always an artist, she named each shade of blue, purple, orange, gray. “The colors change so fast,” she mused. “I can hardly keep up.”

Theresa’s treatments could not keep up with the progression of her cancer. She died in February 2004, but I think of her often, especially at this time of year.  In 2010, I imagined how pleased she would have been with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and how devastated by repeated efforts over the years to repeal it without replacing or fixing it. I used to think that by 2018 situations like hers would be a thing of the past, but as we settle into the last days of the year, let it be acknowledged that millions of people are worse off now than they were a year ago because of increasing uncertainty regarding the future of health insurance and the rising costs of medical care.

These are the darkest days of the year. Winter is settling in. I try to remind myself that every day brings us closer to spring, but reflecting on stories like Theresa’s, brings sadness and a sense of loss. Where is the compassion in politicians who are so busy with sleight of hand tax reform measures that they simply ignore the debacle of rising health care costs?

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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