Health insurance is mighty important to three-time cancer survivor Mary Duffy, of Redwood City, California. So when she lost her job in June 2008, she opted to pay the big premiums to keep her coverage under the COBRA program. But COBRA has a time limit -- 18 months. In December, Duffy's being kicked loose.
Aside from frantically searching for a job, Duffy has had one hope.
"Honestly I've been crossing my fingers and praying that Obama would be able to pass health care by December," she said in a phone interview.
In between revising her resume "what feels like 387 times," Duffy has been watching in frustration as the man she admired so much has had his signature policy initiative clobbered in Congress.
Duffy said she volunteered for the Obama campaign, knocking on doors and making calls, specifically because of her inability to obtain an insurance policy, due to cancer, from 1992 to 1997.
"To hear today about the president backing off the public option -- Jesus, we're getting to see this man for what he really is," Duffy said. "He seems fully prepared to let men who represent more cows than people steer the ship." (That would be men like Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, who represents a state with 967,440 humans and 2.6 million heads of cattle.)
Duffy takes it all with good humor, despite a series of hard knocks.
For most of her professional life she ran her own business, doing food-service consulting for colleges and universities across the country.
"I was able to make a modest success of it for 20 years," she said. "It was always a small business. A lot of travel, going to a lot of college campuses, which was the fun part, because you got to sit in a room with a lot of college kids who said, 'The food sucks!'"
In 2005, Duffy said she was diagnosed with breast cancer -- for the third time. No more breast-sparing operations, "no more fooling around this time," she said. "By the end of my surgeries I looked more like a teenage boy than a woman." Medical bills piled up, eventually reaching $33,000.
Duffy was glad to land a job with a large company doing similar work that required less physical hustle in 2007. And her health insurance premium dropped from $685 a month to $110.
"That was great until the following June, when I was laid off," she said.
"I had just gotten a raise and three days later I got a call from my boss. He said, 'I have some bad news.' I said, 'This isn't very funny.' He said, 'I'm not trying to be funny.' That was devastating."
Duffy said her unemployment insurance will run out in January. She'll be in the same boat as nearly 1.5 million Americans. It's a common story, but to the people living it out, it can be surreal.
"I turn 60 this Saturday. The job market for 59-year-olds is not that great," she said. "I've thought of going back into the original business, but colleges have cut back. I do little part-time jobs. I can't believe it, but that's all I can get at this point. It's really scary and I don't know what I did wrong."
So now what? "I'm a New Yorker," she said. A friend once told her she has "high bounce." What does that mean? "If you played stick ball, you always want a rubber ball with high bounce," Duffy explained.
"There are days I sit in tears, but the rest of the time it's not worth it to stay down, so you get up and put one foot in front of the other."