By the time you read this, Jessica will probably be dead, but until then, I will try to write about her in the present tense. She is a former student of mine who returned to college after years away, so she got my Gilligan's Island references in my classes. She is an utterly jubilant presence, a large woman who is a fount of joy, loving most everything she did at school and tolerating with great humor those things she did not. I directed her in several plays, and she is as brave a student actor as I've ever worked with, going from broad farce to gut-wrenching drama to the lead in a romantic comedy. Jessica's mere presence made all the typically college-aged students feel safe - not so much in a motherly way, but as a big sister who had her younger siblings' backs.
If any of them needed help, Jessica was there. To this day, she is still close with many of them. Her Facebook page is filled not just with brief expressions of sorrow and hurt, but post after post of long tributes and notes about how heartbroken people are. Hundreds of them. Few people are as deserving. After Sandy devastated parts of Staten Island, she volunteered to give out food and clothing. Eventually, she got a full-time job with one agency that assists people who are homeless and hungry. It was then that she finally got health insurance for the first time in her adult life, despite having worked since she was able.
"Unfortunately by the time she was diagnosed, it was already far too late to do anything," her brother wrote yesterday about the cancer that is in her lungs and uterus. The tumors in her lungs were so big that chemotherapy couldn't shrink them so they could address other issues. Her fever reached 108. That's not a typo. Her kidneys failed. She has been on life support for over a week now. Her brother said, plainly, "Jessica will not be making a recovery from her illness." It is an awful end for someone in her early 40s who, after more than a decade of drifting, had created a good life for herself, a life that would have been spent helping the poverty-stricken and those with HIV/AIDS.
For the years that Jessica was a regular presence in my life, I often told her that she needed to see a doctor for one thing or another. She laughed it off, saying that she couldn't afford to, that she'll just take something over-the-counter. Once, when she was injured, the bills put her in a financial hole that took her a long, long time to climb out of.
I've gone on about Jessica because, even though I had only seen her a couple of times in the last few years, the whole thing is heartbreaking. But this is supposed to be a note to politicians, especially those who want to see the Supreme Court overturn the subsidies to people in the federal exchange and wreck the Affordable Care Act, if they can't do it in Congress. Why is this addressed to them even though Jessica has health insurance through her job?
Because this cancer has been growing in her for a few years and she never had a physical and never got diagnosed until now, when it's too late. The Republican members of the House and Senate, the Republican presidents in her lifetime, they are mostly responsible for that. Jessica made just enough money as a single person to be over the Medicaid threshold prior to 2013, when the ACA expansion happened in New York. It's almost funny: she was determined not to have to rely on anyone to live on her own, but if she had quit working and gone on Medicaid, she might not be on the verge of death.
As a country, we should be ashamed of that. We should be shaming every governor or legislature that refuses to expand Medicaid. We should be shaming every politician who wants to undo Obamacare, which is still not enough to cover everyone. Each and everyone of them, for Jessica's entire life, has their craven, pandering hands on the plug that will be pulled. Their years of inaction came to this moment.
This is a story that we hear time and time again in the United States. Someone dies because they didn't have health insurance. I'd ask to imagine it, but most of you reading this probably don't have to conjure a fake victim. You probably know someone in your own lives. The Affordable Care Act is a noble, if flawed, attempt to do some good for people who need it. You should either be leaving it alone or making it universal, not attempting to end it. It's truly this simple: If you believe that some people should not be able to afford to get regular medical care, if you think that's ok or a built-in part of a capitalistic system, then you are a terrible human being, and, if Christianity is where your faith rests, you are a damned hypocrite who knows nothing about Christ.
There's a final, sad, cruel part here: Jessica's brother has asked that, in lieu of flowers and gifts, we donate to help take care of the expenses that haven't been covered by health insurance and for her funeral: "If you are willing and able, there will be a donation box at the funeral home, and an address will be provided for anyone who would like to send a donation. Nothing is expected, but anything donated would be greatly appreciated." Our tribute to Jessica will be to help her family pay the bills.
Jessica might find that funny. If she were able, she might give that laugh that everyone loves. And she'd understand how horribly American it is.