By: Cynthia H., Okeechobee County
When I was 20 years old, I moved to Florida from Chicago and got this pretty cool job as a seamstress. I remember staring out into the ocean while hemming drapes for someone on Jupiter island. It was like a dream. Over the next thirty-four years I built a successful business with an impressive clientele. Just before my cancer diagnosis in 2012 I was making slipcovers for the Kennedy’s in Palm Beach. Yep, those Kennedy’s. I was living the American Dream.
I had medical insurance up until 2010 which is when the recession hit. I was just no longer able to afford it, so I had to let it go. I had no idea how the lack of health insurance would turn my life upside down. I went to see an attorney who advised that I file bankruptcy and get rid of all that I owned, so that I could qualify for Medicaid. Well, I didn’t have any credit card debt, so bankruptcy was off the table. However, I could sell my business, my house, and all of my property—which is what I did. Letting go of my dream house and five acres was hard. Getting rid of everything got me insurance for short period of time. I had surgery on July 3, 2012. My daughter turned 18 on August 31, 2012 and my Medicaid ended. I was thrown out of the system after about two months of Medicaid coverage. Yet, I still had a long road to recovery.
I was diagnosed with triple negative aggressive breast cancer and treated at Moffitt Cancer Center. The mother of one of my daughter’s band friends worked with a medical program and knew how to navigate the health care system. When you’re sick, you need someone like that to help you. The system is difficult to understand, but it’s worse when you’re sick and not thinking straight. She connected me to Moffitt, one of the best hospitals in the country, where I received excellent care. They never mentioned my lack of insurance. They didn’t care. They made me and my care the priority, not the insurance. I had numerous surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation. If I had not had those treatments, chance are, I wouldn’t be standing here today.
Thankfully, I survived cancer. But then I was faced with finding a new career. Sewing was out of the question because I couldn’t afford to prick my fingers. A prick might lead to an infection. The doctors removed 27 lymph nodes from my right arm along with my breast tissue, which left my filtration system compromised. Given the high possibility of getting pricked by a needle or cut meant that I would never sew again. So, I had to start again. I knew that I needed a job that provided health insurance. I couldn’t work at Walmart or McDonald's because they purposely keep their employees under 32 hours a week, so that they don’t have to offer health insurance. Big companies are smart that way. I worked as a supervisor at a prison for about a year. That was horrible. The inmates were respectful because I respected them. But that wasn’t the right job for me.
I’m barely 5 feet tall, so I could see my counselor’s hesitation. But I have a pretty strong mind and believe I can do anything. I got my license which allowed me to travel all across the country. Last year I came home to Florida just three times. There are only a few states that I have it made it to. I admit that sometimes it was scary--living by yourself and sleeping on the road, alone in a truck. I knew not to socialize too much because I had to stay safe at the truck stops. The safety issue was real, but I was on top of the world. I got to see a lot of beautiful places.
After driving trucks for almost two years, my daughter asked me to come home. At first, I took some local jobs and then I finally got a job with Tropicana, the orange juice company. I move trailers around the job sites. Tropicana pays really well, and they have awesome insurance. The tough part is that we only work 6 months out of the year. We’re laid off for the other six months. Tropicana covers our insurance for three months that we are laid off, and we have to find our own coverage for the remaining three months. That’s how I found out about the Marketplace. The first year I worked for Tropicana I bought a plan through the Marketplace and my premium was $150 a month. This year it jumped up to $1,000 a month. That’s a big difference. I don’t know what they have done. I know that the laws have changed, but how anyone afford $1,000 a month? Luckily Tropicana offers COBRA insurance that costs me about $500 a month. Another plus for me is that I don’t take any vacation time off during the year. That allows me so stretch my insurance for a few weeks. Even at $500 the COBRA insurance is worth having because I have medical issues. Some of the people that I work with just do without insurance those months.
Now and again I think about reopening my seamstress business. People still call on me to do work for them. I’m proud of what I built. It’s nice to still have a good reputation after all this time. I do miss it. That was my first love. Starting again would be different. I would have to hire employees because I can’t use my hands. And, that would be a very different job. So right now, my plan is to continue to work for Tropicana. It’s a union job with good benefits. I’m able to put my CDL license to use and I’m the only female running logistics at my location.
If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it all the same. It’s been an adventurous life, and I’m thankful for it. My advice to everyone is to enjoy each moment. Do everything you plan on doing because tomorrow is not promised to any of us. But whatever tomorrow brings, you’ll figure it out. It’s a lot of work and frustration, but you have to keep moving forward. My daughter gave me a reason to fight. I wanted to see her graduate from school. She helped me pull through. I’m lucky because I’m healthy now.