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Carmen Wong Ulrich Headshot

Uninsured: A Personal Price

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My mother died because she didn't have health insurance. She was in her late fifties when all six of us grown kids were told that she had gone to the emergency room in extreme pain. The doctors and nurses didn't even need to test her blood or run a scan to diagnose her. They took one look at Lupe's yellowing eyes, one touch of her distended belly that she'd hid from us with bulky clothes and they made the correct diagnosis: fatal colon cancer. We all had the same questions we wanted answered right away: Why had she waited until tumors had grown into every organ? Why did she wait until she'd started wasting away, telling us that she just didn't feel like eating, chalking it up to her divorce from our father? We had no idea what kind of pain she was in by the time she was diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer. What sane person would not go to the doctor with her symptoms and suffering? A person who knew that going to the doctor costs money. Money that we found out she didn't have.

My Dominican-American mother was good at keeping secrets. At the time, about eight years ago, she had had just finished divorcing her second husband, our father, with whom she'd had a relationship with for over 30 years. I was the product of their affair before she'd divorced her first husband, Peter Wong, a secret she kept from everyone, including me, until death came knocking. So what do husbands have to do with health insurance? Well, in her divorce, she was able to stay on our father's medical coverage, which is normal. However, in another secret act, Lupe decided -- probably in a fit of loneliness and a quest for financial stability -- to re-marry a third time, to an old family friend. She told us afterwards. And no, even though he was a business-owner for fifty-years, her third husband did not have health insurance -- a typical scenario in the immigrant community. No matter, because they divorced a few months later (my mother had become too 'American' for his old-fashioned Latin needs) leaving my mother without medical coverage for the first time in almost 30 years.

Little did we know that Lupe had also gotten herself into substantial credit card debt. The mother of a personal finance expert wouldn't allow her daughter even a peek into her money. She knew better because she was the parent, of course. Her independent, guarded streak lead to common scenarios growing up like coming home from college discovering Lupe's eyes taped shut, leaving us kids incredulous that she didn't tell any of us that she was having cataract surgery until the bandages gave it away. Nope. We'd just worry. Don't worry.

Now we were worried. A very preventable cancer was set to kill our mother in four months or less. She had had a ticking time bomb eating away at her body, causing symptoms that would have brought any of us to the doctor, but she didn't go because it would have put her more into debt. How many other Americans are in this position? How much less would it have cost the system for her to have a colonoscopy when she was at stage one or two, or even stage three which they found the same year in her younger sister, our aunt, who survived? Fear of cost, especially for those who don't qualify for Medicaid, prevents too many of us from seeking the care we need to keep us not only alive, but well. We know that prevention pays off. In the debate over health care, I want to hear louder the cry of those who understand that we all need preventative care paid for in order to save the system billions and to make it work.

In the end, my mother did qualify for Medicaid, especially since she was too sick to work. And not only was she incredibly well taken care of (thank you state of New Hampshire and St. Joseph's Hospital in Nashua) but her doctor had the foresight and thoughtfulness to get her access to free clinical trials of a cancer-drug that kept her alive, not for the mere months that the emergency room gave her, but for two long and grateful years.

How much longer would our mother, our children's grandmother, have been with us if she had health insurance? Guadalupe Altagracias Giannotti was sixty years old.

Carmen Wong Ulrich is a Power Woman! -- see her story at www.PowerwomenTV.com

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