It’s October 26, 2016, and I have been an employee at Remote Area Medical for right around six months now. It has been an amazing experience during which I have visited many different states and met many people in need. Do you know what doesn’t change wherever we go? People who feel they have nowhere to turn for basic medical needs. In talks with people who I know outside of work, many submit the same question, “How must those people feel to wonder what they will do if they get sick?” Another popular one is, “How did they get in the position where they have no other option than RAM?” Those are both good questions and are very complicated to answer.
I actually have a little experience and knowledge about both of those questions.
I took a different path than most people in life; moved out of my parents’ house at 17; got a full-time job and was living on my own by the time I was 20. While, I think it was great to be able to support myself and have a job which allowed me to live on my own at such a young age, it also meant I was unable to go to college.
Why couldn’t I go to college?
Well, at the time there was no Tennessee Lottery Scholarships in place and there was no free two-year community college program, either. I also did not have the money to pay for myself to go and, honestly, am not sure I would have been ready for college during my early twenties. I did finally get around to going to college around 2005, and by then, I was 25 years old. I was still working full-time at night, but I was making enough money to pay for college and take a few classes each semester. Attending school during the day and working the night shift at a newspaper was not ideal, but it worked out. I had originally felt I would not enjoy college, but I actually loved it. Going into the last semester before receiving my associates degree, in late 2009, I had a 4.0 GPA and I was invited to be in an honors society for community colleges.
At the time I had no idea just how important being inducted into Phi Theta Kappa would turn out to be for my life path. Within a few weeks I was receiving scholarship offers from four-year colleges, albeit some of them I had never heard of, but one I received happened to be in Virginia and sounded promising. Emory & Henry College, which is located in Emory, Virginia was offering me an almost full scholarship to attend the college to complete my undergraduate degree. The only problem was it was about two hours from where I lived, but something was telling me I needed to check it out.
I went to an orientation event with kids who were at least 12 years younger than I but I fell in love with the college. So at the age of 30, I decided to quit my 13-year job at the Knoxville News-Sentinel and move to Emory, Virginia. It was going to be tricky and scary. I would most likely be the oldest person to ever live on campus in a dorm at the college and would I fit in was another big question. However, this opportunity seemed to be the light at the end of the tunnel for a possible better career and a better life.
However, one thing I did not think about was health insurance. Thankfully, my first year, the college offered an insurance plan for all students who were not covered by their parent’s plan. My second year came with a new rule that if you were not an athlete the college did not offer insurance for non-traditional students. At first, I did not think the first thing about this new legislation. Sadly, it turned out to be a very big deal. I ended up being sick more often during the next two years than any other point of my life and not having health insurance made it even worse.
I went to the CSA office, Centralized Student Assistance, and demanded to know why they had taken away the insurance. The answer? Not enough people were really utilizing it and they decided not to continue with the program unless you were an athlete. So I asked the doctor who was located on campus what she suggested I do if I got sick and she said, “Go to the ER.”
Go to the ER? Sounds like an easy enough plan. They are open all the time and if you get sick you can be seen at any time of the day or night. However, without insurance, bills at a hospital ER can really rack up and they did. Another issue with using the ER as your primary care source is they are designed to treat what’s currently wrong with you. I had some issues needing a long-term plan to address them and I was just not able to really get the care needed.
There was nowhere else to go and I felt hopeless. Hopelessness is a scary thing and I hope to never know that feeling ever again. I could not believe there was not a way for someone who was trying to better their situation by going to college to have health insurance without paying out a huge amount. When you’re a college student full-time, it is not the easiest thing to work a job which would pay the insurance premiums I was being quoted.
So, I eventually graduated in 2013 and was very proud of what I accomplished. However, there were also around $20,000 of medical bills which had accumulated while I was not covered under any insurance plan. My wife and I are still trying to pay off these bills.
There are no perfect solutions to the health care problem, but I believe access to basic medical care should be a human right. The smile on the faces of people we help at our medical clinics is priceless, but I’m sure the people who come would rather not have to sleep in their cars overnight to get medical care.
I am extremely proud to be a part of RAM and love what we do. I do hope one day we have to find a new mission to take on because everyone in the world has the medical care needed. That would be a great day!