The Stories I Hear
I had two conversations this weekend that bothered me.
Actually, it was three now that I think of it. I’ll get to them in a moment.
Sometimes, when I have such conversations, my mind starts to wander a bit. Not because I’m bored or disinterested. Because I start to imagine, in a small way, that the person I’m listening to, this person that’s telling me this sad story about their life, might have been me, given the right set of circumstances, genetics and traumatic events in my life. I start to wonder, too, what this person, and this conversation might have been like had one thing not led to another, to another, and another, which eventually led them to this moment with me.
I’ll tell the stories now, and we’ll get back to that last bit down the road a bit.
The first conversation was with a man who is concerned about his mother, who is 54 years old. She had cancer and was on disability for a time, so her health care was covered by Medicaid. The treatment (which included radiation) was successful, and her cancer was in remission. Good news for this, right?
Well, maybe not so much. Because she didn’t have cancer anymore, she’s, by definition, no longer disabled. When her temporary disability ended, so did her health care coverage. Her son is concerned because now she has no way to afford her post-treatment scans. He also said the radiation created some side effects that are significant, but she can’t afford the medical care needed to treat them. He was asking me, as a legislator, if there are any programs out there that could help his mom get the treatment she needs. I don’t, at least not off-hand. I rattled off a few organizations I could recall (I was driving at the time of the phone conversation). They’re using at least one of them with help getting medication. But that doesn’t address the scans that she needs, or any other health care needs that arise from the traumatic experience of having a cancer diagnosis.
There’s an easy remedy to this – one the state has dug in its heels against for several years: Accepting the federal expansion of Medicaid. Had we done that before, this woman would be covered by Medicaid, and her son wouldn’t be worried about how his mom will get the care she needs without going bankrupt. I’ve said it a number of times before, and I stand by it today: The refusal of ultra-conservatives and Gov. Sam Brownback to accept Medicaid expansion is the most morally reprehensible thing I’ve ever seen. One person’s philosophical objection to a federal program isn’t greater than another person’s right to thrive. One party’s idea about the value of a program isn’t greater than the value of another person’s life. Period.
Next time you hear someone touting this “able-bodied adult” narrative to describe the typical person who would benefit from Medicaid expansion, I want you to remember this woman. She’s 54 years old. She works as a CNA in a nursing home. She makes $11 an hour. She can’t get health insurance, and consequently, she can’t get the post-cancer treatment she needs. That’s who’s affected by decisions like this.
Policy is people. We need to remember that.
The next conversation was a man in Hutchinson who is disabled. He’s had a severe stroke and he can’t drive. However, his children live in Kansas City, and he uses Amtrak to get there and visit them. He was concerned because he read something about the federal government ending its support of Amtrak, and if that happens, he won’t be able to see his kids very often.
I wish I could describe the terror in his eyes, but I can’t. Trust me, it was there. This was a man who wasn’t talking to me about Amtrak ending; he was talking to me about his very existence changing.
On this, I’m all but helpless. That’s a federal issue, and one the state doesn’t have much of a say in. I gave him the information to contact Congressman Roger Marshall and Senators Jerry Moran and Pat Roberts. I also told him that there’s almost zero chance Pat Roberts will talk to him, because that IS a thing. Then I gave him my card and said if that didn’t yield anything to give me a call, and I’d think some more.
Amtrak is one of those functions that seems to always be on the chopping block. And to be honest, I don’t use it. Well, I did once a number of years ago, but that’s it. So I don’t weigh things like this too much or too often. But I could tell that to this guy, there was no bigger issue for him than what happens to future Amtrak service in Hutchinson.
The last one here was likely the most disturbing for me.
I was sitting in a local coffee shop this morning with my friend Ryan, when I noticed this woman sitting, then walking from place to place. She had a Kwik Shop Styrofoam cup.
I mentioned to Ryan that I thought she was likely homeless. She came over and asked if she could use a phone to make a call. I gave her mine, and she sat down with us. She called three numbers, but no one answered. Lastly, she called her case manager and left her a message about a meeting they had scheduled on Tuesday.
As we talked, it became clear that she was mentally ill. Not in the overt way that tends to make people uncomfortable. But she couldn’t seem to hold her thoughts, or to articulate them in a clear way. Her stories bounced around, and she’d come back to the point she had been on, only to deviate to something else, some other part of her life, before returning to her original thought.
“I’ve had a rough life,” she said at one point. And that was clear.
This is where I began to wonder a bit.
I sometimes craft a different story in my mind. I try to imagine what happened to set these things in motion. I wonder what sort of person she might have been, or what sort of conversation we might have had if parts of her life had gone just a little bit differently. If she hadn’t had a rough life.
I could be completely wrong, but I imagined that up to a point in time, this woman had a life that looked very much like yours or mine. She had a marriage for 16 years, which makes me think she wasn’t always the person I saw in front of me today. I imagined that something happened, and I have no idea what that might have been, and it rattled something loose in her that can’t quite be found. It set her life on a different path, yet she’s cursed with the knowledge of what her life had once been, and what it might have been if things had just worked out a touch differently.
I don’t think it’s a secret that we are on the cusp of a mental health crisis in this country, if we’re not already in one. We have not dedicated appropriate resources to research or treatment of mental health, and we’ll pay the price for that one day I fear. I also think it’s awfully easy to brush the mentally ill under the rug, while we go back to our nice tidy world where our brains work right most of the time. And we don’t want to pause long enough to wonder if that person we just slipped away from might have been us, or could be one day, if we, too, had been traumatized or if we held a genetic fragment that simply needed some stimulus to unleash itself in our minds.
We need to remember that, too.