By Robert Fogerty, MD
“You look nice today. People don’t come to chemo in suits very often.”
The friendly and familiar receptionist mentioned as I was checking out, the always full jar of lemon flavored hard candy on the shelf between us. As I pocketed a few of the candies, I managed to swallow the nausea and metallic taste just enough to say, “Thanks. I have a job interview today.”
During my senior year in college, with medical school acceptance letter in hand, I was diagnosed with metastatic testicular cancer. Initially, life became planning surgery and meeting doctors, but early in my treatment course I received a letter that my health insurance had been exhausted and I would no longer receive any health benefits. This was after my first of four chemo cycles, with a major surgery still to come. Needless to say, this was a problem. My parents were both well educated, a lawyer and a chemist-turned-teacher, but this took everyone by surprise and presented a new crisis.
We responded by dividing up tasks. My parents quickly inventoried all the assets, including the family home, and my sister called around to all the hospitals to see what could be done. She called the local and state governments asking for advice while I simply tried to eat food and get to class to graduate on time; I couldn’t have another tuition bill on top of my health expenses. I also started to look for a job, with a job came insurance – this much I knew.
I went to the interview, a job as a management trainee in a car rental agency, with hopes that this job would be something I could get, could do during treatment, and would provide the insurance that would save my family from financial ruin at my hands – my disease. I went to a Jesuit college and learned that truth and honesty are paramount. So, I told the recruiter that I had cancer, I was in treatment, and that I would likely be done soon – all true.
I didn’t get the job. I still didn’t have insurance and my next chemo session, with its massive bill, was coming very quickly.
My sister learned that this would not be fun. One hospital said to her that they would treat me and then take us to court to get paid. Thankfully, I went to school in Massachusetts where a law was on the books that allowed me to enroll in health insurance without a pre-existing condition exclusion because my insurance being exhausted counted as a special qualifying event. I enrolled in an individual insurance plan, my care went uninterrupted, and I graduated on time. To this day, my sister and I remain grateful to Massachusetts for that single law, which is as much a part of my success as cisplatin and etoposide, the chemotherapy agents I received.
The bills still mounted, but were manageable. I survived, personally and financially. I pushed off medical school for a few years to get my life back in order, and moved on. I had many scary moments during my treatment, from the plastic surgeon telling me my arm might need amputation to my neutropenic fever to being discharged just in time for my college graduation. However, what bothers me the most was, and stillis, the sense of abandonment from my society when my insurance ended.