Lisa Lovelace’s mother didn’t know she had cancer.
When Vicky Lovelace lost her job as a nurse, she lost her insurance with it. She also fell into the coverage gap of the Affordable Care Act. Like 2.6 million other people in this country, Vicky didn’t qualify for a marketplace subsidy and wasn’t eligible for Medicaid in Tennessee, one of the many states that rejected an expansion of the program. Vicky’s diagnosis came after an emergency room visit in October of 2014. She died two weeks later.
I spoke to Lisa, who is 42, and also lives in Tennessee, about her and her mother’s experience. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
My mom was living with me at the time. She was a nurse and had lost her job, and then she lost her healthcare. She was being seen by a community health center for regular things, but it didn’t include any kind of screenings. By the time we knew something was wrong and got her to the emergency room, it was everywhere. The cancer was in her lungs, it was in her ovaries, it was in her liver, it was in her brain. From the day we found out she had cancer until the day she died was exactly two weeks.
She was uninsured for two years. She had thyroid problems, so usually attributed most of what she was feeling to that. She was always run down. She would go to the doctor for those things at the community clinic, but she never had any kind of cancer screening. She would get medications and basic blood work, but that’s all she was getting.
I remember the day we brought her to the hospital. I was asleep, it was early in the morning. My daughter woke me up and said there was blood in the living room. She said, “Mom, Hannah—she never knew how to say ‘Grandma’ when she was younger so she pronounced it Hannah—is bleeding.” There was blood in the bathroom and in the living room. She was bleeding vaginally. I told my mother she had to go the hospital. They started doing scans, and the first place they found it was in her liver. The doctor assigned to her was a family friend and he came to talk to me and said, “Your mother has cancer everywhere.”
I asked him what we were going to do and he said they would treat her, help us with hospice, and send her home. He said that if she made it a month he would be surprised. I am the oldest, so I had to tell everyone. I made calls to my family, and then I had to sit down and tell her she was going to die.
Those were a strange two weeks. She was confused and a little addled. We had her at home on hospice. Family came to visit, everything she wanted she got. If she wanted a banana in the middle of the night, I would go out and get her a banana.
Everything was written off for indigent care—I was on disability, she wasn’t working—and I was grateful for that. It was covered. That, at least, was covered. But I firmly believe that if she had health insurance, she may have died anyways, but she would have died easier. A less painful death. A less violent death. You wouldn’t think it to be violent, but this felt like a violent death.
I wrote to President Obama after she died. It was 4 in the morning one day, and I just wrote a letter basically thanking him for what he did. Even though it didn’t help my mother, what he did by getting healthcare to more families, I thanked him saying that maybe what happened to my mother wouldn’t happen to more families. I got a letter back. At first I thought it was a form letter, but then I flipped it over and saw the signature had bled through the page and he had actually signed it. I put it away and kept it.
Now I am rabid about anything having to do with healthcare, this whole debate. I volunteered for Bernie Sanders based on healthcare alone. Almost every day I am in contact with my senators’ offices. I’m on the phone with them saying, You need to listen to me, let me tell you what happened to my mother. This should not happen to a member of your family. If other countries can make it work, then why can’t we?