Several events of this week have made me aware of just how thankful I am to have access to healthcare. I am extremely fortunate. My spouse and I serve as pastors to congregations that are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). One of the biggest expenses in the benefits category to our congregations is our family healthcare policy–and it is a wonderful policy. Our denomination also places a strong emphasis on wellness and preventative medicine, offering us both incentives and resources to attend to our health as an act of stewardship and faithful discipleship.
One of the reasons I am so thankful to have insurance is because I am a breast cancer survivor. I was diagnosed in June of 2004, and underwent surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation between late summer and Easter 2005. The diagnosis came just one week after my girls and I had moved to Rushville, New York, to begin internship. What could have been a nightmare turned out to be a formative experience and a lesson in blessings, the goodness of God, and the importance of community.
My internship supervisor, the congregations of St. John and St. Paul Lutheran, the UMC in Rushville (in whose parsonage we lived), my extended family, dear friends and neighbors, seminary professors and staff, and an amazing team of physicians, technicians, and caregivers surrounded me with more love, prayers, and care than I could have ever imagined. I would never wish a cancer journey on anyone else, but I can say that the blessings and gifts in the experience far outweighed the difficulties.
Here’s the important thing about my experience. Had it not been for a free mammogram and basic student health insurance, I might have waited too long due to financial insecurity and the rigors of grad school and single parenting. My cancer was aggressive and moved extremely quickly, breaking out of the breast into my lymph system. St. John and St. Paul worked together and threw a chicken barbeque benefit with help from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans that raised enough money to keep us from bankruptcy, and the hospital and cancer center helped me find a study, subsidies, and grant funds to help offset what student insurance would not cover. Even so, I am still paying down student loans that were necessary to take, especially considering the cancer slowed my graduation by an extra year. Still, I maintain that I am one of the lucky ones. I am alive and healthy. Every day is a gift.
Because of the cancer, however, other insurance would have been difficult to get. I was able to move directly from student insurance to ELCA insurance, but when I went on leave from call to assist my parents in 2009, I was not able to find insurance that I could afford, so I had to stay on the ELCA plan and pay the premiums out of pocket. I was lucky to have that option, but the year and a half I was on leave was financially devastating–even though I worked three jobs (a contract family and youth ministry position at my home congregation, adjunct teaching at two colleges, and freelance writing). It was a tough time, but again, the gifts of being able to be close to my parents outweighed the sadness of leaving a call, a community, and friends I loved and the tenuous financial situation of living hand to mouth.
I’ve been reminded of the gift of healthcare this week as I’ve seen and heard about others struggling with serious health issues. Two family members were hospitalized. Both have insurance, thanks to Medicare. Were it not for insurance, all of these folks would be in horrible situations.
My own 24-year-old daughter would not have affordable healthcare were she not able to remain on our family policy (thank you, President Obama). She currently works for a non-profit ministry as a mental health worker, and they offer no group coverage, only a minimal plan brokered through a local insurance agent that has a high deductible and minimal benefits. This was a shock to her after returning from working in Korea as a teacher–where national healthcare is good and provided at a minimal cost.
Today I read Nicholas Kristof’s essay in the New York Times about his friend, Scott, who is without healthcare–a Harvard educated, intelligent, thoughtful man, who simply took a chance on not purchasing a private plan and ended up with stage four cancer. Click here, please, to read the story for yourself. It reminded me again why I am grateful to have health insurance and ready access to fine healthcare.
If you do not have insurance, please look into how you might get some; don’t play roulette with your life. If you cannot afford it, pursue every avenue to find subsidized insurance. We can all inform ourselves about the issue, seeking facts behind the polarizing rhetoric, and write to our elected officials urging them to continue to pursue a way to provide care for all citizens. Finally, if you do have insurance, be sure to give thanks for it. It could save both your physical and financial health some day.
P.S.: To all the many people who walked with me through the wilderness of cancer, thank you again. You will always be held close in my heart, and I am grateful for each and every one of you.