Post-Debate Musings: Bernie’s Heart and His Courage Just Fine with Me

Oct 17, 2019

By Donna Smith

Fifteen days from now I will know what it’s like to have Medicare coverage. For the past 64 years and 11 months, I have been at the mercy of a for-profit insurance and health system that doesn’t forgive illness or injury and never forgets my age.  Since 2006, my husband has had Medicare coverage.  I don’t.  I am younger by 10 years.  I ought to be healthier, and that’s the way we planned things.  We figured at this stage of our lives I would be still healthy enough to help care for my husband should the need arise and that we might even be able to relax into retirement somehow.  Our system does not allow that, but it could.

My tall, slender, athletic and outdoorsman husband had his first heart-bypass surgery when he was 46 years old – almost 30 years ago.  Since then, he has had iliac artery bypass, two more open-heart surgeries, carotid artery bypass and more.  He worked until he could not anymore, and he has been able to care for his health and his well-being for more than 13 years now due to the freedom from worry about health coverage.  Yes, he has Medicare and a supplement plan (another topic for another day), and we never once worried about taking him to get checked out or get care when needed.  He does not abuse the system – ever – as he far prefers being outdoors, playing a round of golf with his senior league or otherwise enjoying a relatively active retirement at 75.  

Then there is me.  I have spent the past 30 years doing whatever I had to do to stay employed by companies and organizations offering decent health benefits.  Until we had my husband on Medicare, I knew my effort was life or death for him.  I was diagnosed with cancer in 1999 (and a couple more times later), yet nothing could stop me from working and keeping those benefits.  I did not take care of myself except to do whatever it took to get to and from work and outperform anyone who might take my job from me and my lease on health benefits.  I took massive amounts of over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory meds and other prescription pain meds when I could get them.  I propped myself up with asthma meds when I wheezed, and I stayed current on everything professional.  

By the time we appeared in SiCKO, Michael Moore’s 2007 award winning documentary about healthcare, we had been bankrupted by medical debt and crisis.  I testified to the House Judiciary on July 17, 2007, about medical debt, crisis and bankruptcy, and the person who sat next to me and also testified that day was then Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren.  

We had never gone without health insurance because I had done whatever it took to keep it.  Now, my body is really in trouble.  My health has suffered.  My spirit has suffered.  I often didn’t go to the doctor when I needed to, and sometimes only to get a quick fix to keep me working.  Employers were all too happy to take advantage of that hard work ethic run amok, and I knew it.

Now, after having a terrible gastric hemorrhage in 2014, I am being mercilessly dunned by the same hospital where I was treated and that infected me with MRSA.  I became septic back then, had to have surgery to remove a vein in my left arm from my wrist to my chest wall, had pulmonary emboli that damaged my lungs, had to have IV antibiotics for six weeks, and never really recovered my strength following that siege.  But that doesn’t stop Chez MRSA (what I call St. Joseph’s Hospital in Denver) from going after me for money with a vengeance.  Talk to a lawyer, people say.  Really?  Come on.  The legal system only allows the wealthy to afford bringing cases like this – poor people don’t lose much and aren’t worth much in our system, after all. So I argue with them some.  But the financial damage and the collection calls aren’t the worst of it.

The biggest damage to my life is the loss of relationships with people I love.  You see, as hard as I worked and as strong as I stayed, I still seemed poor because I was.  Every extra dollar went to health insurance premiums, co-pays, deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses.  Even after working us back out of poverty when I worked for the nurses’ union, National Nurses United, it took only two years of ill health for me to slump again after I left their employ due to ill health.  Many in my family saw me as a failure.  Many friends stopped coming around.  People said we had a dark cloud around us, and people blamed us for not being better decision-makers when we were younger.  Those rear-view crystal balls are awesome, apparently.

Now I struggle to find meaning in staying alive. I fight depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide.  I feel so angry and diminished sometimes that I cannot see how I can finish this gig of life any other way and just get out of the way.  I grub for money and beg people who no longer want to hear from me because I am at a loss as to how I am supposed to endure.  

So much more to this story, but let’s fast forward to the debate last night. I watched with millions of others as the same worn out debate about Medicare for all played out in Ohio at the Democratic Presidential Debate.  I was most interested in what the truths would be and what the mistruths might be – who lined up pro Medicare for all and who was wavering.  It is my litmus test as a 2020 voter.  I do not care if folks decide to call me out as foolish because I have had enough.  My life and my physical, financial and emotional health have all been devastated by a lack of access to the same quality healthcare provided to all through Medicare for all.

I wanted to hear ones of my heroes, Elizabeth Warren, just say that a premium tax would indeed help pay for Medicare for all, but she didn’t.  She danced around it, again. It’s a quick, easy answer, Elizabeth. “Yes, we will have a premium tax that helps pay for this.  That premium tax replaces your current private health insurance premium.”   Other ideas for funding are great too as is pointing out that the money required to run our healthcare system now is already in the trillions per year, and we’re not getting our money’s worth nor is everyone fully covered.   How tough can that be?  I am disappointed that she did not say that.

When the commentators asked Bernie about his health, I was not surprised.  I was thrilled to hear his clear, powerful and oft-repeated answer over many years on Medicare for all.  He knows he was lucky.  He knows my husband is lucky, and he knows I am not.  Having guaranteed, cost-effective coverage doesn’t harm the nation; it strengthens the nation.  I would wager that Bernie’s access to care means he is just fine and even stronger than many of the others on that stage last night.  My husband is strong and energetic at 75 because he had access to coverage he never wondered about.  Medicare for all saves lives   Have the guts, indeed.  It will be nice when all of the candidates stop lying about how badly we Americans want to keep our private coverage.  Are you kidding?  My private coverage would dump me in an instant if they could, and they have cost me nearly everything.  And in 15 days, I’ll be on Medicare.  Thank you, Bernie, for knowing my life mattered as much as my husband’s or yours.   


  1. Charles Carter


  2. Jack H

    My wife and I “met” Donna while viewing Michel Moore’s film SICKO when it was released more than a decade ago.

    Donna and her husband had been bankrupted by medical expenses and had to move in with younger relatives. She appeared on SICKO documenting the problems they were having over the expenses associated with their necessary care.

    Since then, they have not been lucky. Her story is tragic, a struggle to stay insured and fight off hospitals and doctors who want their money, while she suffers waves if impairment. Read it, then finish my comments if you like.

    ……. …….

    We met Donna in Gettysburg PA in person when she came to be on a panel we helped organize for Pennsylvania’s proposed Universal Healthcare Bill the organization submits regularly to our state legislature.

    It bogs down in Republican committees thanks to gerrymandering of our state government. We keep trying.

    PDA was on board and present for the event; Conner Boylan and Tim Carpenter were with us for the occasion as well. And so we had a personal meeting over some food and drink after the event. Donna was served first and gracefully shared her food with those of us still waiting for service. She is an impressive, warm being who does not deserve to suffer.

    Later in 2016 we met at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia. Donna was the Executive Director of PDA, and stil able to hold a job, and PDA was able to take advantage of her abilities. Donna has had a number of impressive stints over the past decades and always working as a disciple of arranging for our draconian medical funding system to be replaced with abundant provision for everyone to have all their needed healthcare provided without having to pay at the point of service…always a small tax that elimates the ominous threat of bills that cannot be paid for needed services at the point of emergency. She deserves better.

    And if YOU suffer from medical problems compounded by the huge bills you get for treatment….YOU deserve better, too.

    My wife and I have been fortunate. We made it to Medicare, in my case, 17 years ago. Before that we had the kind of insurance most teachers get and few healthcare problems…compared to now!

    THIS MUST CHANGE. Donna deserves our help, and the million no in America suffering similar situations do too.

    True comprehensive Medical for All is the only answer…not Medicare for Most, Medicare for Everyone Who Wants It, Medicare for……

    Don’t be fooled. If the insurance racket continues, so will sufferingand death. Everything that isn’t Pure comprehensive Medicare for All is a continuation of the ripoff disaster that is our healthcare payment system.

  3. Reggie Cervantes

    Well said. As a Medicare participant I know it’s what has kept me alive. I want Medicare for ALL Americans. Those who want choice will have it. Pick what you want to be your supplemental policy.

  4. KateLoving Shenk

    Liz’s campaign walked back support for M4A AGAIN after the debate, as it has after every debate, so far.
    Bernie’s the only choice, period. His entire agenda rests on getting $$ out of Politics. CNN and MSNBC can try and erase him and all of us who support him, but Bernie’s got the people. We Will Win

  5. Gale Marie Audia

    I am so with you on this issue and I am so sad that you have had to fight so hard for what you deserve! Thank you for sharing your story with us and with the world! It is the story that needs to be told and needs to be heard. My hair stands up when I hear candidates, etc. say how much people love their insurance health care! It is NOT that they love their healthcare, it is that politicians have told them lies about medicare for all and about how we can’t afford it, etc. They do not hear the truth so they vote it down! It is up to us to tell them the truth! I also wish that Sen. Warren had told them the truth. Thanks to Bernie for clarifying the truth. Thank you again for telling us about your struggle and I am so glad you will now be on Medicare. Hugs, Gale/Reno

  6. Edith Kenna

    Absolutely truthful account of what many Americans ate forced to undergo. Medicare for All is actually a more simple concept than we are led to believe; one huge risk pool with everyone paying in, and everyone able to obtain effective affordable care when she needs it. Medicare for All will become the trellis upon which the rose bush blooms.