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.

9 Comments

  • Posted September 17, 2017

    Pam Lyle

    Interesting day you had… definitely food for thought.

  • Posted September 17, 2017

    Shara Gonzales

    It’s worse than this. This is what I would like to go into some detail about. It’s unbelievable how cavalier we treat people

  • Posted September 17, 2017

    June Gladden

    Would love for you to talk to Amy, our daughter…..she has looked at the health care field from every angle you can think of. She has been head of the school nurses assn. evaluated hospitals, writer and speaker and as a patient and parent of kids who needed health care.

  • Posted September 18, 2017

    Alice Mills

    Thank you for noticing and discussing situations that most people don’t make time or thought for.

  • Posted September 18, 2017

    Connie Johnson

    Medical Care: Nobody should have to die or live uncomfortably in this county. It’s all about priorities. We have money, it’s what we choose to spend it on. To see people that have paid in to support others their entire life but when they need it are turned away is more than my heart can bear. It’s simply inhumane. I’m proud of you Jason for having compasion for all of this issues. I think that is where is starts. Putting a person behind the issue. So many people in leadership roles don’t have compassion. They see a number or dollar figure but not that each and every person in this county deserve our compasion and attention to their problem. Thank you for sharing your insights- I always appreciate seeing your world through. Educating the public about these issues is the first step. Thanks for doing what your doing!

  • Posted September 18, 2017

    Marlys Bernard

    I worked with a lot of people with various mental health problems before I retired. Often some of those issues were presented while I was working with them. So much needs to be done, and there is so little help available. I’m glad you were there for those you mentioned. I believe if something can be done for them, you will find it. So glad you are there, Jason.

  • Posted September 18, 2017

    Kenton

    After my physician recognized my deteriorating mental condition, I was admitted to a local hospital. The result was horrible. I was shuffled through a one size fits all therapy regime. Upon release I was assigned a social worker. I knew where this was heading when she pulled out a social work textbook and used it to guide our session.
    I agree that mental health-care needs a fix. The reality is that my wife and family contributed more towards my recovery than any “professional”.

  • Posted September 18, 2017

    Mimi Meredith

    I second what Alice Mills said. Your ability to relate, to listen with care and then to retell with care are powerful tools for creating change. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

  • Posted September 19, 2017

    Jen Jensen

    Your thoughtfulness and reflection during/following your conversations is inspiring and intriguing. I appreciate your willingness to devote energy toward positive change and how you seem to value building relationships first.

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