On Monday I was standing in line to apply for CareLink, Cook County’s program for helping people with their medical bills when they are uninsured. It was six thirty and the line wrapped outside of the waiting area into the hospital lobby. My bladder was on a forty-five minute time clock. We waited with our birth certificates, pay stubs and miscellaneous other documents. There was a number on a screen that said the office left off serving applicant 863. The line was so long that I was uncertain how many people were ahead of me. I leaned against the chapel’s outer wall as the clock moved slowly and more people joined the line. I was perspiring. My knees were sore. I wanted to lock them for stability but then felt a little faint. So I leaned. The wall was my friend.
At 7:00 a.m., a manager came out and announced how she wanted to manage us. She would send people who had appointments in to an interior waiting room with yellow slips bearing numbers like those you get when you wait at the grocery store’s deli counter. They had to show their documents to her to reassure her that they were prepared. All of us took out papers to hold in our hands.
People without appointments, like me, would also show her our documents. If we were not ready, she would offer us an appointment for a future date. The next appointment was in May! It was March. As I waited I learned I needed utility bills to verify my address. I had none on me. I decided to wait and make an appointment if necessary. If by some miracle my papers passed muster, then I might get a white slip bearing a number from 864-910. That was how many walk-ins could be taken that day.
I finally made it to the start of the line. I pointed out the omitted utility bills. The woman with the master sergeant voice stared at me. I was one of few people there who looked like me–bald with baby fine hair growing in the wake of chemotherapy. She ushered me to the window where someone was handing out white slips. I was number 903.
I took a seat in the waiting room. Others were not so lucky. I saw many turned away that morning. The atmosphere was tense. When people were turned away because there were no more white slips the line had wrapped its way down the hall toward the emergency room. Many left rather than wait to arrange an appointment. There were many who needed translation assistance. Those with English language skills tried to explain what was happening in Spanish and other languages. The manager’s impatience was not directed entirely at the people in line. She was LOUD and irritated with her co-workers, too. People spoke quietly so as not to let the many speak over the one with power.
It must be tough to turn away so many, but her authority was unquestioned. I never considered arguing with her if she dismissed me.
There were several young men sleeping on their backpacks in the waiting room. They appeared to have been discharged by the ER during the night. All had fair hair, ruddy coloring, and scraggly facial hair. One had bare legs that were lobster red and swollen. Another young man wore the hospital band. He looked fine to me and the man with the red legs looked in need of care. You never know, do you? The rest of us took seats around them. People were soft-spoken, respectful, patient. Several had bad coughs and others offered them lozenges, as if all of us might fare badly if they were disruptive, and not because we wanted to help. Those who were alone were silent. Those who were in the company of others spoke in hushed tones even after the manager went inside to begin evaluating claims. We were there for a long time. At 8:00 a.m. the number on the board was 868. There was still a good chance that I might be rejected for not having enough proof of my address. I resolved to wait.
Outside it was raining. The day before it had been 80 degrees. Flowering trees were in bloom.
It has been “raining” in the restroom, too. When my bladder could wait no longer I slung my purse and briefcase straps around my neck, clutched my pants to keep the hems from touching puddles of liquid and nests of long black hairs, and crouched over a filthy toilet. There were only two soap dispensers. One was empty. I knew I would feel compelled to strip down and shower as soon as I got home. It was depressing. I expected nothing else.
The mess has been made by people who seemed earnest and sincere. Apparently, none could aim.
As I returned to the waiting area I encountered a man with a beaver hat with its flaps strapped up. He paired this hat with a t-shirt. What was his plan for the day?
At 8:30 a.m. the board said we were up to 871. A man in a purple on purple plaid suit with brown shoes, navy Nike socks, an African tribal scarf, and a Gourmet To Go shopping bag filled with stuff took a seat across from me. He had a black leather baseball cap and a winter jacket, too. He took candy from his well worn shopping bag and tried to give it to children, but the children wouldn’t take it. He told me he hoped that my shoulder would feel better soon. It was painful. I wondered how he knew.
At 10:00 a.m. the number was 883. A baby was screaming. Late arrivals had to be directed to the window at one side of the room. The people who waited for service took turns answering the late arrivals’ unspoken questions. Otherwise they stood there staring at a number dispenser that had no more numbers to dispense and signs that told only part of the story about how to get served.
The man in the purple suit was hitting on a voluptuous teen who sat with her mother. At times he hung over her shoulder staring down the front of her t-shirt. He offered her candy, too. There were other women he hovered near. He kept scurrying back to his shopping bag and drawing out treats to offer them.
I dropped my glasses and he ran to get them for me. I thanked him, but my eye contact was not grateful. His bag was the source of many treats for children and young girls. He offered no candy to me.
The rain stopped. The sun came out. In the waiting room we were frozen in time. The person being served was 892 for a very long time.
I hazarded the restroom again and found it worse. I prayed I would return to the waiting room and find the “line” moving. I returned to find everyone waiting while 892 continued to be served. It was 1:35 p.m.
When the number reached 895 we were allowed to wait in the interior waiting room. A woman sat beside me in a group of three connected chairs. She jiggled her leg until I thought my bladder might fracture and scatter like pearls from a broken necklace.
It was getting close to 3:00 p.m. when Ms. F called 903. I took a seat and offered my I.D., birth certificate, and pay stubs. Even now I blush as I recall my nervousness. I wanted charity. I have never wanted that before.
She entered my medical records number on her computer and invoices started rolling up onto the screen. At one point, Ms. F said, “Twenty-three so far.” She looked at me long and hard. “You have had a bad year, haven’t you, honey?”
Tears filled my eyes at her compassion. I had been watching her for some time. She was a tough woman. She spoke Spanish fluently although it was plainly not her first language. She gave folks a piece of her mind with the lash of a quick tongue when they were slow to respond. She sent people packing if they were unprepared.
I did not look away. I have medical bills well into the six figures from two hospitals. I had imagined I might be paying off these bills the rest of my life, which I hoped would be long. “Just how many jobs do you have?” she asked me.
“Two universities,” I answered.
“And you’re still working?” she asked.
“I have been working all along,” I answered.
She stared at me again.
I felt queasy. Whatever she decided, I would find a way to bear the cost. I was so grateful to be alive. The price would have to be paid.
“Let’s see what we can do about qualifying you for some help, honey.”
She typed. She scanned my documents. She studied her screen. She handed me papers to sign. The last one barely registered with me.
“Where do I sign?” I asked.
“You don’t.” Ms. F smiled a little. “You qualified.”
“God bless you,” I said.
“He always does,” she answered.
According to the form, I qualified for a 100% discount on whatever is covered. I have no idea what that is or means. But I walked back to my car as if someone had removed a six figure tumor from my shoulders.
I know the United States Supreme Court this week considers oral arguments for and against Obama Care. I understand that the Commerce Clause has been used to stop discrimination by intrastate businesses and to stop the growing of wheat by a single farmer. If the burden placed on interstate commerce by discrimination and farming for private use is enough to warrant federal intervention, then it seems a minor difference that the same government order one to buy something to ease a burden on interstate commerce. Nevertheless, people stand outside the courthouse screaming “Obama No” and “Obama Yes.” Have you ever imagined yourself in need of charity? If so, then maybe you can understand why I wish we had a way to make health insurance affordable for everyone.
The day was humbling for me. I have never asked for charity before. I have received scholarships, which are a form of charity. They were awarded for work performed. But I could not figure out a way to handle my medical bills without the county’s help so I asked for charity. I did not demand it. I did not utilize my talents to argue or debate. I was a supplicant. I asked for help.
I am grateful for charity. I will admit that I would be even more grateful to be able to leave that charity on the table for someone else. I spent yet another day in the company of people who seemed just as much (or much more) in need as I was, just as grateful for any help received, and just as deserving of help. But I learned something by asking for help. I learned that I need to ask for help to receive it. I learned that I want to live more than I want to be proud that I can handle anything myself. I need others just like everyone else does. I appreciate the fact that the people who extended charity to me treated me with dignity because it was painful to ask for that charity. I hope that I will be the sort of person who treats others that way when it is I who can extend help to them when they need it.
In the greatest nation in their world shouldn’t everyone be able to get quality healthcare? Thank you, Cook County and all of its citizens for helping me get that care. Thank you for creating a safety net for people in their time of greatest need. Thank you for using that safety net to help me. I will do my best to make the kindness a good investment for you.