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

August 27th, 2011 2:43 PM

The Hurricane’s Eye Wall: Andrew to Irene

As the early rain bands of Hurricane Irene inch into my neighborhood this morning, I am caught off guard by the flood of terror and emotion surfacing for me that is disproportionate to the impending threat (at least at this moment).  The memories of the pain and the fear spent riding out Hurricane Andrew on its northern eye wall more than 19 years ago followed by years of healthcare and financial storms has left me in an alternating state of stoic resolve and deep panic.

My beautiful sons, Dan and Russ, lived through the horrific pre-dawn hours of Andrew with us, and are now grown and living terrific lives of their own as accomplished, hard-working men.  Their siblings were already out of the house when Andrew hit us.  The four of us would survive together the early years of my husband’s worsening health and the end of his wage-earning capacity followed by deep financial trauma as I struggled to keep the financial ship afloat.

I think we all tucked the night of Andrew away somewhere deep inside and remained grateful we had survived it.  We moved away from Miami a few months later when water rushed uncontrollably from every electrical socket in our home and from the kitchen cupboards after roofing workers left for the weekend and didn’t batten down the hatches well enough.  We could take no more.

Each time we weathered the next life storm together, perhaps we were each able to draw on that night in comparison and know we’d get through it.  But the storms kept coming.  Bills kept coming.  Health issues kept coming.  The insurance costs kept rising.  The out-of-pocket costs kept rising.  We had been hopeful in the earliest post-Andrew, Clinton White House years that progress would be made on the health reform front.  But we all know that history and that her-story.  Neither Bill nor Hillary could (or would) fight that fight to a just conclusion, and the George W. Bush years that followed surely left healthcare concerns looming like the hurricane threat levels for millions of us.  And we are still nowhere near fixing this mess, in spite of the recent health reform bill, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

No matter how hard we tried together to batten down the hatches for ourselves, the rain came and drenched us.  We kept looking for the sun and the good times, and we did have those now and then.  But sometimes the crawling back up is just very difficult.  Health concerns and related financial fights can be like that.

I told Michael Moore as we sat on a boat in Miami harbor during SiCKO’s filming in 2007 that knowing what I know now and looking back on what happened in our lives, I might have done things very differently.  Michael listened patiently while I told him that once on a deep-sea fishing jaunt a friend took us on in the weeks immediately before Andrew, my husband hooked a big fish and was reeling it in before he started to have chest pains (angina).  I gave him a squirt of nitroglycerine under his tongue and urged him to let our friend land the fish lest he have a heart attack in the attempt.    He reluctantly gave up the rod with its treasure to our friend.  My husband never again got that chance to land such a catch but we sure did get the chance to confront plenty of significant life, health and financial traumas without much chance for good outcomes.  That day was one of the last best days of our lives  -- on that amazing deep sea fishing trip before Andrew hit and before all the other storms of the past two decades hot too .

We haven’t given up fighting our own issues, and we surely will not give up fighting for a healthcare model that provides a single standard of high quality care for all without financial barrier.  We will fight on.  But in having to fight that fight in our day-to-day lives to rebuild from financial collapse repeatedly and in fighting to make systemic change so the human right to healthcare is achieved, we have had little time and fewer resources to enjoy what should have been life’s pleasures.  Relationships have suffered.  Time has been lost, never to be regained.

But as I feel the deepening sense of sadness and worry in advance of Hurricane Irene and am forced back in my emotional past to what it felt like to be on Andrew’s eye wall, I do still often wonder – as I did with Michael Moore that day while filming SiCKO – if maybe I should have encouraged my guy to land that fish.  At least we’d have had those moments of joy.  I wonder today if Michael remembers me telling him that story.  It wasn’t one necessarily meant for a wider audience.  But somehow, as Irene bears down and as Andrew festers back up in my heart and my memory, it seems important to consider.  Land the fish, my friends.  Or it will only be the memories of terror in the eye wall that are left.

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