Freddie Effinger started feeling what he called a "bizarre pain" in his upper thigh during the summer of 2007, just before his third year at the University of Alabama law school. After a scan, his doctors told him it was probably some sort of mass, nothing serious, and that they would remove it surgically in September.
Effinger, then 23, didn't have insurance. His parents' policy dropped him after college, and he had figured he could coast through three years of law school and land a job with benefits before suffering any catastrophic illness or injury. ("Superman Complex," he calls it.) The operation to remove the mass would only cost him about $1,200.
But when they operated, Effinger's doctors discovered something more serious.
"The tumor was the same size as my hand," Effinger told the Huffington Post. "And directly underneath that tumor was another tumor, and further down my leg was another tumor."
The following month, an oncologist told Effinger he had advanced stage lymphoma. The oncologist told him that his chemotherapy could cost tens of thousands of dollars per session, and that he would need 12 sessions. Effinger panicked.
"My mom's a schoolteacher and my dad's a juvenile detention officer," Effinger said. "They're good people, but that's not going to happen."
Effinger scrambled for insurance. He said he was told that the school's health plan for students wouldn't have adequately covered chemotherapy treatment at the nearby University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital. He had no luck on the private insurance market outside the university.
"After making a couple calls explaining the situation, it was pretty much discussions of blackout periods and 'We wouldn't be able to do it,'" he said. "And it was frustrating and frightening."
Meanwhile, his leg hurt more and more. He was afraid the cancer would spread.
Staff at the hospital, St. Vincent's East in Birmingham, Ala., came up with a solution. "I spoke to someone at the hospital and they mentioned there's a certain number of patients a year they grant charity to," he said. He was eligible because he had zero income. He was indigent.
"They called me that later that day and told me they would grant me 100 percent charity. I broke down in tears. Somebody told me they were going to let me live. It was an amazing feeling."
Effinger finished up chemo and got married in July 2008. He even managed to finish law school on time and score a job with an employment law firm in Birmingham.
But Effinger is still on the hook for about $9,000 for other parts of his treatment. (That's on top of $100,000 in student loan debt, but, he said, "at least the student loan people are being cool" by comparison; debt collectors harassed him over the medical bills.) His credit is wrecked.
And the warm, fuzzy feeling Effinger got from the kindness at the hospital was tempered by the realization that he had to beg to survive, that he owed his life to charity and had added considerably to his debt all the same. He's become an advocate for health insurance reform, going door to door for Organizing for America.
"I'm a pretty humble guy, but it's really demoralizing to have to beg a hospital for your life, to be to be able to be treated for this thing you just found out that you had," he said. "I don't just have a right to be healthy? I have to beg for it? I have to show that I am poor? It's frustrating. It's embarrassing. It's really unacceptable."