$20 from a safety net

Her name was Rachael and she would have been 14 this year.

I usually think about her as school gears up each fall, as
kids shop for school supplies and new gym shoes.

I think about her parents, both of whom are now well on
their way to middle age. When Rachael was born, they were two scared
20-something kids with a daughter in danger. He was an agricultural laborer,
and she was a stay-at-home mom.

I thought about all of this today in the wake of Mitt
Romney’s speech at the RNC last night. He spoke out against the failure of
Obama to do much of anything good. Jobs lost, costs hiked, people screwed.

(Side Note: I have to give the RNC a lot of credit for one
thing: Clint Eastwood. Instead of the media going after Paul Ryan’s horseshit
or Mitt’s bullshit, everyone is enamored by rambling oratory that was likely
taken from the “Book of Speeches, Salutes and Wedding Toasts delivered by
Drunken Brothers-in-Law and Other Morons Who Grabbed the Mic.” Nice inadvertent
idiotic brilliance.)

When Mitt was yammering, I was flipping back and forth
between two channels filled with lies: The RNC on one station and the Green Bay
Packer announcers who were trying to convince me that the Packers wouldn’t miss
a beat if Aaron Rodgers went down and Graham Harrell had to take over on the
other. I was also uploading news articles I needed my students to read this
term for my feature-writing class, which is where I came across a piece on

And then it all came back.

When I worked as an editor in Missouri, one of the things we
didn’t lack for was reporters. The students would fill the newsroom each year
and look for stories that hadn’t been done before. The joke around town was
that if you hadn’t been interviewed at least three times each year by someone
on our staff, chances are you were dead.

Most of the stories were what you would expect out of a
newspaper brimming with cub reporters: fires and floods, meetings and speeches,
pomp and circumstance.

I was helping to oversee coverage of outlying areas, which
usually led to some meeting stories and an occasional county fair story. If it
was happening out in Boonville (an actual city, not a slight) or beyond,
chances are no one really cared.

One day, a kid came to me with a scrap of paper he’d pulled
from a weekly paper that covered an outlying farm community. It was a tiny ad,
alerting the community at large that someone was hosting a chili supper with
proceeds to benefit a girl named Rachael.

“Can I go?” he asked, understanding that space and mileage
money were tightly rationed.

“Sure,” I told him, figuring not much would come of this.
“Let me know what happens when you get back.”

The next time I saw him, he was chattering away like an
agitated monkey. He told me the story of Rachael, a baby with Down Syndrome and
a hole in her heart. The family had no insurance, the dad was the sole source
of income and they had already been drained by all the complications associated
with Rachael’s birth.

Her grandfather had gotten some people together to make and
serve chili to help defray the cost of the upcoming open-heart surgery.

The family wasn’t thrilled about this nosy kid who was
writing down everything thing they had to say. They were guarded and concerned.

But, the next time they had a supper, back the kid went for
another update about the fundraising and the girl.

The more he went, the more he wrote. The more he wrote, the
more people heard. The more they heard, the more they gave.

Eventually, the family adopted this goofy college student
who had taken up their cause in print and started opening up about all of this.
They told him they never regretted the decision to have a child they knew would
have these problems. They felt both saddened and overwhelmed with gratitude
when people started to donate to their cause.

“We’re afraid to ask how much it’s going to be,” the mom
said at one point. She had been trying to find a job to help out, but between
caring for Rachael and the general state of the economy, she couldn’t manage

Her husband did everything he could to be the breadwinner.
He worked upwards of 80 hours a week during planting season in an attempt to
help the family cobble a life together.

He might have been better off if he hadn’t.

In one of the last interviews leading up to the surgery, the
mom revealed her husband made too much money in the previous fiscal year to
qualify for Medicaid and WIC benefits that would have taken care of much, if
not all of the bills.

“How much is too much?” the kid asked.

“We missed the cut off by about $20.”

Rachael kept getting worse and then a bit better and then a
bit worse.

Something had to be done.

The surgery happened in November of that year. She was less
than two months old when her family gathered in a private waiting room. Her
grandfather was in a hospital bed on one floor, recovering from his heart
attack while she was being tended to on another floor.

My kid was there as well, at the behest of the family,
watching all of this come together.

Were the chili suppers enough to pay for the bills? No one

Would she make it out alive? It was a 50/50 bet.

He was rolling through these thoughts as a nurse came in and
told the family that things weren’t great.

“Please, God, let us keep her,” Rachael’s grandmother said
in a quivering voice. “… We need her more than she needs us.”

She survived the surgery and continued to struggle forward.
Each day, one small step in a positive direction. The family spent weeks holed
up in the waiting room, each day, praying for a small miracle.

“She still has a chance,” her mom told the reporter. “But
everything has to go perfect.”

Everything didn’t.

Years after that story ran, two things remain fresh in my

First, that story wrecked my reporter kid in a way that I
never would have imagined. He was about 20 years old at the time he wrote that
story and he was never the same after it.

He had grown up in an America that preached the idea of hard
work, sacrifice and prayer. If you wanted something badly enough and you worked
hard enough, then you would always triumph, the story went.

He gave everything he had to telling that story.

The community gave everything they had to raise the funds.

The family sacrificed and prayed.

The girl died.

This wasn’t the script he was used to.

The parents were close to his age. He sympathized and became
part of a story that consumed him. He couldn’t let it go.

Years later, I got in touch with him and found out it still
haunted him in some ways. He was a serviceable reporter doing a good job and
managing post-collegiate life.

“It’s funny,” he once wrote to me. “After all I’ve done in
the years that have passed, I still remember that story. It’s always with me.”

The second and more depressing thing was the quotes from the
family. They prayed and hoped and loved and more, but so many of the quotes
came back to the issue of money.

They were trying to earn money.

They were trying to raise money.

They didn’t want to know how much this would cost.

They feared the costs associated with the life of their

At a time in which they clung to hope, the niggling fear of
funding scratched loudly at the corners of their mind.

I can’t say for sure that they didn’t get the best possible
care for their child. I have no idea if there was a “broke people” wing for
folks without bulletproof insurance or if they had insurance it would have been
better or faster or stronger care. I have no idea if that $20 kept their kid
from landing in a safety net of government assistance and medical assurance
instead of crashing into an early grave.

I can say, however, that isn’t a concern anyone should face
while their infant’s life hangs in the balance.

Healthcare is a rather abstract concept to people who have
it or don’t need it. If you are healthy or insured, chances are when Romney
says, “We must rein in the skyrocketing cost of healthcare by repealing and
replacing Obamacare,” it doesn’t mean much. It’s just a word like socialism,
communism or whatever ism is on the outs at the time the writer is using it.

Obamacare. Like he’s the guy giving me my prostate check
each year.

Obamacare. A Franken-word that smacks of too much government
and not enough freedom.

Obamacare. A term inviting the icy scorn of those who
believe they just hit a triple, when in actuality, they were born standing on
third base.

And that’s exactly who Mitt Romney is and why it’s hard for
me to take him seriously when it comes to problems that impact people who earn
in a year what he took home in a day.

When he talks about working hard as a businessman, I’m sure
it was never in a Missouri farm field, planting seeds for 10, 12 or 15 hours a

Sweating for life. Praying for hope. Losing both.

Thursday, Mitt Romney told us, “If I am elected President of
these United States, I will work with all my energy and soul to restore that
America, to lift our eyes to a better future. That future is our destiny. That
future is out there. It is waiting for us. Our children deserve it…”

Today, Rachael rests in a small grave in a small town in
Missouri with a marker noting she lived for 63 days.

Each one of those days, her parents had to worry about how
much money it would take to keep her alive.

That can’t be our future.

It can’t be our destiny.

No one deserves that.

14 thoughts on “$20 from a safety net

  1. My one semester on the “Weekly Missourian” was spent in Boonville (Fall 1988). Did we know each other? I hated the chore of news writing and focused on graphic design; now I’m using my MA (which was supposed to lead me to the next Great American Novel) to teach English in Philosophy to students who don’t think Todd Akin said anything to get upset about. This was a heartbreaking article, and I cannot for the life of me understand why almost half the country literally doesn’t give a shit about people like this–they’d rather vote for the rich bastard who would throw them into the street without a second thought if it would put another dollar into his bloated Swiss bank account. Talking sense to conservatives is like trying to teach math to dogs.

  2. This may be the best thing you’ve ever written.
    We’ve created a system that stresses people out at a time when they absolutely, 100 percent cannot be any more stressed out. It’s inhuman.

  3. What A said, Doc. Truly poignant story on why we need Obamacare now and why we absoutely cannot allow Mitt to become President!
    PS, you should get your now adult ex student to do a follow-up story on Rachels family and community. I wonder if her poor parents survived, or if their marriage did anyway.

  4. When I take a little time and look at “what’s going on” on various sites, this is why I sometimes get a “good news, bad news” situation. It’s always obvious to me when there is a post from Doc, and that’s always good; I truly enjoy the writing. “Bad” only because it takes a lot of time as it always makes me think.
    Guess that’s not really bad.
    (Obviously, I don’t have anything approaching such writing abilities.)
    Thank you.

  5. Sandman- Must have missed each other. I was a mid-1990s to 2000s guy. Still, I understand the issues you note. When I got the Weekly (and then the “Mid-Missourian” as they began to call it), we dealt with a lot of what you talked about.
    At least you know someone else out here with you who chewed some of the same dirt. 🙂

  6. Doc, didn’t realize that you used to be in MO, sounds like in Cola? I’m due north in KV.
    Your article is quite to the point. The merciless nature of even “sliding scale” healthcare with the numbers set so that even with assistance, the people can’t afford healthcare. Being in a rural area, the percentage of folks on seasonal work or full time menial wages is quite high.
    Yet, as one news article noted, the repub convention said a lot about many things. But it also totally avoided many important issues including healthcare.
    Would they understand what you said? I can only compare it to Romney saying that we can’t have folks in college who then live with their parents. Only he doesn’t make reference to the high cost of college for those who want education (and to enter the workforce with advanced skills – face it, you either can pay the person for their training that they obtained on their own, or business will have to provide their training on the business’s dime. Not to mention in the later, the training is in a narrowly defined area and lacks the parts of a well-rounded education, including the arts and history.)

  7. As always, I love your stories (how you write) and as always, I get a little teary eyed. I’m not sure if every Republican who loves Mitt, read this story, if it would change their mind, but if it didn’t, they don’t have a heart. I think that’s the problem, they lack that empathy gene. (Among others)

  8. It is stories like this that gives lie to the whole concept of a safety net in this country. The line is incredibly rigid and far, far below the level it needs to be, so you get a giant donut hole of people that can’t afford the treatment, but are too “rich” for the safety net.
    Falling between the cracks is as American as apple pie. And for all too many people, it is the difference between life and death.
    Kudos to you for writing about how one “yuppie food stamp” can be the difference beneath life and death for a child.

  9. A very tragic story beautifully told, Doc. The people giving speeches, the people listening would probably not change their minds if they heard the story, because they have no hearts. I met them at a Mary Landrieu town meeting on Obama’s health care plan. They were angry, and they were mean. One woman shook her sign so close to my face because of the sticker I wore favoring the health care plan that I thought she would hit me. When I said in a calm voice to another woman, “But what you say is not true,” she screamed at me, “Fuck you, you bitch!” and stormed off. I was probably 75 years old at the time.

  10. You know what?
    I was going to read your article.
    But then I noticed something.
    You seem to have a phobia about writing in paragraphs.
    There’s a reason paragraphs exist.
    You should really investigate why.
    /pet peeve

  11. how dd such a ‘christian’ party STRAY so far from the ‘good news’. or i suppose it’s not for govment to do for its own people. especially non white americans.

Comments are closed.