Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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Donna Smith

Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation

February 12th, 2012 8:34 PM

An Anniversary – Heart-Sick and SiCKO

Just a few years ago, my dad died on February 13.  It was just one day short of he and my mother’s 49th wedding anniversary.  Just three weeks prior, Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Though he was 75 years old, he was still working, and he was a force of love and life and laughter in our family and in his extended community.

Because my husband and I were waging our own war with the broken U.S. healthcare system, we didn’t even have the funds to fly me to California when the call came that he might not live through the night.  A dear friend drove with us to the Denver airport with her family credit card, and she put me on a plane bound for Oakland.  I sobbed the whole way to the airport, “Daddy, please don’t leave me alone here on this earth.  I cannot do this without you.”  On the plane, I sat next to a woman returning from a funeral for her older brother.  As I comforted her, I calmed myself down.

For eight days after I arrived there, our family fought the horrific fight so many families do in the final days of a loved one’s life.  All of us struggled to in our own ways against the impossible reality that our dad was going to die.  My mother knew it, and her children were fighting so hard; she could only stand so much.  But our dysfunctional healthcare system certainly added to the trauma for us all – and especially for my dad.

Even in the final hour of his life, after the decision had been made to stop all of the life support functions that had been keeping him just beyond death’s door, treatments and equipment were rushed into his room that only served to grab every possible ounce of revenue for the for-profit hospital where he was a patient.  So long as he was still hooked up and could show a heartbeat on the monitor, the money could still flow.  I asked one technician who came in to provide completely new tubing for my dad’s respirator just 15 minutes before it was shut off, why we needed it, and he acted as though I was an evil daughter for asking.  Though my dad was comatose, I told him he’d get a kick out of the irony in what was going on around him.  I had spent eight days talking to him as he lay motionless, and I tried to believe he could hear me somehow.

His death was ultimately peaceful less than an hour after his life support systems were turned off.  I would later find the card he had already bought for my mom for their anniversary tucked into his dresser, and I gave it to her right on time.

One of the ironies I know he understood was the fight I had to secure healthcare without going broke (though I had insurance) compared to the ease with which healthcare services were offered – even sometimes unnecessarily or at a determent to the patient --  to those with enough money or “gold-plated” insurance coverage.  He had always taught me to make sure I had the best coverage I could afford, and I did.

So the February 13th anniversary of his passing always comes to remind me not only of his life but of how the death he endured and the rest of our family witnessed could have been so much more humane and natural if a more sane healthcare system had been in place.  On February 14th, I remember the wonderful man who taught me to dance by having me stand on his feet when I was just 5-years old as the Lawrence Welk show played in the background.  And I remember how very much he loved my mother, his Valentine, even in the rough years that every marriage has that lasts 49 years.

But this year I am also thinking of another upcoming anniversary.  SiCKO, Michael Moore’s 2007 award-winning documentary about the broken U.S. healthcare system, will turn five this year in May. My husband and I, and about a dozen other brave souls, were featured subjects in SiCKO.  And I am betting all of us wish we were looking back fondly on the days when our stories were recorded or when we first saw the finished film before Michael took it to the Cannes Film Festival  and celebrating that we had helped move the nation to a more just and humane healthcare system.  I know I wish that was the celebration I was helping plan.

Instead, on this 5th anniversary of the release of SiCKO, subjects like myself will come together again at one of the sites of the original U.S. premier showings to reinforce our shared commitment to the struggle that made us all such perfect fodder for such a documentary.  None of us were paid as actors – we were not actors.  We were patients and the loved ones of patients who had been harmed by the system.  We have been so thrilled to see the Occupy Wall Street movement (and many of us have participated where and when we could) call attention to the income disparities in this nation as the disparities in access to healthcare are a part of that picture too.

We, the American SiCKOs, all want a progressively financed, single standard of high quality care for all Americans without financial barrier.  We wanted it when we were facing the healthcare traumas that led up to our appearances in the film, and we still want such a system.  We never asked to be spared from life’s tough moments or even to have miracle cures or treatments administered that would not have been in our best interests.  We all had health insurance, and we all expected to have access to appropriate care when we needed it.  And until that is the reality in these United States, we will fight on.

Please plan to join us in late June for the SiCKO anniversary.  Details about location, dates, and times for our events will be coming in the future weeks and months.  Our preliminary plans are to hold our gathering in Philadelphia on Saturday, June 30th.  So save the date.

We are starting our fundraising now for the anniversary.  We’ll not only be raising travel funds for the subjects who are gathering who cannot afford the costs, but we’ll also be trying to help other people who want to be there and need help to do so.  We’ll update the world on our situations – the healthcare and financial traumas didn’t stop with the release of the film – and we’ll form our SiCKO plan of action that includes moving ever forward to the moment when healthcare is a human right in this nation.

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