By Rebecca, Northeast PA Healthcare Rights Committee Co-coordinator

My father taught me so much about how to survive under poverty. He would be gone all week, driving day in and day out as a truck driver, but still made time to help our neighbors on the weekends. Sometimes it just so happened that when we were hungry, the exact food that we needed would “fall off” the back of the truck while it was being unloaded. Daddy would say it was an “act of God”.

One summer night in 1998, he called home to talk to us kids. He did that every night, which was quite a feat back then before cell phones became commonplace. His only words were, “Put Alice on the phone.” He never called my mom Alice. The doctors said it was a heart attack, but a month later my Dad went back to work  – “AMA”, or Against Medical Advice. The day that my dad left, we were served an eviction notice. 

My family was homeless for several months. No matter how hard or how long my dad worked, we couldn’t seem to climb out of poverty. The health insurance cost $120/month because his heart attack was considered a pre-existing condition. The meds cost $60/month out of pocket. He dropped the health insurance and we stopped going to the doctor. 

Eventually my dad worked hard to improve our credit and bought a house, and my brother came back from California. When my mom had a stroke, Geisinger sent my dad a bill for almost a million dollars – he had a good laugh about it and threw it in the trash. When my mom died, my dad used her last social security check to pay for her cremation. After my brother lost his job, I gave my dad whatever I could, but they still kept coming up short. My dad and then my brother took out payday loans in order to make up the shortfall.

In the summer of 2022 my dad got a hernia. Fluid was emptying into his groin; his family doctor referred him to a liver specialist in Harrisburg. The night after the surgery my dad complained of chest pain, but it was dismissed as heartburn. In December of 2022, I rushed him to the ER three times. As soon as they got him to a real room, they wanted to discharge him as soon as possible. Repeating this cycle over and over again was torture.

The fourth time that I rushed him to the hospital was in January of 2023. They ran tests and found out that he was having another heart attack, and one of the tests they did showed that he had calcification on his heart. They said any surgery was too risky with the calcification, that he never should have been approved for the liver surgery. I cried and protested that they said he would die without the surgery. They said yes, it was only a matter of time. They gave my dad a prescription for nitroglycerin and discharged him. He only made it another three weeks before we lost him forever.

Poverty sentenced my dad to death over and over again. It sentenced my dad to death when the threat of homelessness forced him to work himself into multiple heart attacks. It sentenced my dad to death when he chose to drink to cope with the stress, which developed into liver disease. It sentenced my dad to death when he decided to forgo doctor visits because health insurance was too expensive. A lifetime of poverty and insufficient healthcare culminated in his death.

Through the Nonviolent Medicaid Army, I learned about a place where healthcare is guaranteed as a human right. In Cuba, every person has a family doctor who cares for you your whole life, and that family doctor talks directly to your specialists in the same building. My father deserved the kind of healthcare where your liver specialist meets and talks with your cardiologist before surgery. Where your whole healthcare team works together. Not some disjointed, fragmented system that runs off of profit. Whose miscommunications result in two months of pain, suffering and untimely death.

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