Issue July 26, 2011

Death trumps debt

The following was written by Amy Boston Hurst about Doug Norman, a beloved local musician who died on June 30 at the age of 48. It is a poignant tribute and a frightening indictment of our health care system:

Last night, I was trying to figure out how to help a friend go to a doctor, and this morning, I woke up to discover he’d died.

Doug Norman had been ill, sounded like an upper-respiratory thing. Hacking cough, flu-like symptoms. From what I’m recalling, he started running a fever mid-day yesterday. Basically, it became clear that he had an infection, and he was going to have to go to a doctor.

But, he didn’t have health insurance, so he didn’t go see a doctor.

It’s so horrific, it seems unreal. We had tears with our coffee this morning.

I met Doug via Facebook. We both were experiencing near-total shut-in status with our caregiving. I was dealing with a particularly long, rough patch with my son’s autism, and Doug was taking care of his father, who was sick and dying. He was a good son.

He had struggled to get his father to eat and drink, often trying for hours. We had swapped emails about various caregiving strategies. He dealt with all of the indignities that go along with role reversal, and he didn’t complain. He did everything he could to keep his father home as long as possible, but he ultimately had to take his father to the hospital …

Unless you’ve been in a caregiving position, it’s hard to fathom the personal sacrifice that goes along with it, both testing and strengthening love. When his father died, it was very sad, but at the same time, I was pleased to see that he was getting to go back out into the world.

While he was dealing with all of that, he was trying to keep the family business together. His sense of duty was
truly amazing.

In the midst of all of that, his insurance became unaffordable, and he was forced to join the ranks of the uninsured. He couldn’t afford to seek help at out-of-pocket price. He was doing his best to take care of himself, and prior to his death, he’d been eating oranges (I can’t help but think of “The Godfather” here), and humidifying, and doing all of the things one should do when sick in order to get better. But that wasn’t enough. And, turns out, he’d had a problem with swelling in his legs, a symptom of congestive heart failure. Again, he didn’t seek help because it was cost-prohibitive.

I’m so angry I could spit nails. For want of a couple hundred dollars, a friend is dead.

I want to know who it is that keeps the body count of the casualties of our for-profit health care system so I can report that Doug is a victim. This didn’t have to happen. Our for-profit health care system isn’t just immoral, it’s murderous. And he wouldn’t have minded my saying that in the least, as we talked about it on numerous occasions.

He didn’t have to die. — ABH

In a follow-up message, Amy wrote, “One man’s vacation home should not come before another man’s life.”

Reading Amy’s memorial manifesto struck a nerve. My brush with death paralleled Doug’s — albeit with a happier ending.

In February 2006, I was drowning in debt. My Highlands house was on the market. While working in Frankfort’s Capitol Annex, I presented with angina.

Uninsured and afraid to go to the hospital, I did one of the dumbest things ever: I drove home, risking my life and that of countless motorists and passengers. Perspiring profusely, I then did one of the smartest things: I stopped in Shelbyville, staggered into a convenience store, and bought a beverage and a bottle of aspirin.

The robotic clerk didn’t ask me, “Would you like an ambulance with that, sir?”

I would have declined anyway.

At home, I tossed and turned in bed before Don McLean’s “American Pie” started playing in my head. This’ll be the day that I die. It’s funny how a creative body telegraphs its dying distress. Even then, amid my fright, I was amused. I wondered what would happen if I were to expire then and there. How long would my carcass rot before I was discovered? Who would find me?

At my behest, my nephew drove me to the rural hospital — 90 miles afield — where my sister and brother-in-law work. I thought, maybe somehow, I could avoid an
ER charge.

There, a nurse told me not to be alarmed but I was “one of the hottest potatoes we’ve seen in a long time.” With 90 percent blockage in four arteries, I was flirting with a massive heart attack.

For the duration of the ambulance ride back to Louisville, I agonized amid the specter of financial ruin — of losing everything I’d saved.

The next day, lying on a gurney, pre-surgery, I was asked to sign a release. “I can’t afford this,” I told my surgeon. Visibly vexed that I would even consider refusing treatment, he said, “We can take care of that.”

A year later, his office billed me for $3,250 — half of the actual cost — but I was never harassed by debt collectors; it was summarily forgiven.

Other bills were discounted or waived due to my low income. I was blessed — on multiple levels. If I hadn’t stopped en route home and popped three aspirins, I have no doubt I’d be dead.

But the point is punctuated that, for many of us who can’t afford insurance due to pre-existing conditions, fear of debt trumps fear of death.

In March 2010, President Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But the phased measure, which seeks to spare lives and complications by expanding access to insurance regardless of risk, is under fire — predictably, by those the status quo serves best.

Anticipating landmark reform at the August 2008 Democratic National Convention, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, “This is the cause of my life — new hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American … will have decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege.”

A year later, Kennedy passed away. While his dream may never die, precious lives continue to slip through widening cracks.