I never really thought all that much about health care. We didn’t have any while we were growing up. Our parents and community depended on doctor friends for care and prescriptions. Lee Randoll was an old school doctor who made house calls, prescribed aspirin for most ailments and convinced our parents not to get our tonsils taken out. He carried an old fashioned doctor bag and was tall and lean. When Lee retired and later died, we went to the poor people’s clinic a few miles away. I remember being shocked when the doctor asked me if I was sexually active. I was only 11 or 12 years old.
We got our teeth cleaned at a community dental clinic and the dentist supported our family’s peace work enough to set up my sister and I with braces at a drastically reduced rate. It is kind of funny — we got middle-class teeth because our parents were revolutionaries.
As kids, we ended up in the emergency room with broken bones or bad hives more than once. My brother lost the tip of his finger when it got slammed in a door during a fight, and my mom carried the little nub of flesh with her to the hospital. When the bills came due, I think our folks just wrote a letter explaining their circumstances and paid what they could.
In college, I used the school health services — mostly for reoccurring strep throat. Then I moved home and relied again on the family friend method of health care. Peeing in the woods after an Indigo Girls concert, I got poison ivy so bad my eyes swelled shut and there were blisters inside my nose. A doctor friend hooked me up with a prescription for steroids and the itching and oozing cleared like magic. I also was able to sing bass for a few weeks.
Later, I moved to New York City, and when I got my first real job having health care seemed like a symbol of adulthood. It was also a major pain in the butt. I spent hours — if not days — trying to figure out which doctors took my insurance, whether they were accepting new patients and if they were located anywhere near my home or office. I ended up going to a community health center right near my office that took my insurance. I mostly saw interns and nurses instead of doctors, which was fine with me. It reminded me of the clinic we went to when I was growing up — except I had more than $100 taken out of every paycheck for the privilege. But I was only going for annual check-ups and the occasional antibiotic. I never needed surgery or a specialist or anything exotic.
When I quit my job to live a life of almost monastic service and squalor at the Catholic Worker, it was not hard to walk away from health care. I was healthy. I had resented the amount of money I had to pay into the system for years. I figured if I needed anything health related, I could turn to friends of the Catholic Worker. I got sick only once — fever, fainting, cold sweats, vomiting. No fun. It was hot in my little third floor room. Friends got me down to the ground floor and into a wheelchair. They pushed me three or four blocks to a friend’s air conditioned apartment, where I slept for two days in air conditioned splendor and drank tons of Gatorade. No doctors needed.
When I moved to Connecticut to live with Patrick, he looked into adding me to his healthcare plan at work, but it would have cost more than 20 percent of his annual income. We decided I would walk the tightrope without a net. And I did just fine. No healthcare emergencies until the day I found myself testing positive for pregnancy at Planned Parenthood in New London. Hmm. Now what?
They told me that Connecticut provides healthcare for low-income pregnant women and babies. It is called Husky (how cute is that?). I was in luck. The local hospital even has a staff person who helps women navigate the labyrinth of paperwork and bureaucracy to ensure that everyone who qualifies for the program can access it. And it is not just for pregnancy-related care — I was 10 weeks pregnant when I got my teeth cleaned for the first time in three years.
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Our luck held. The midwives we wanted to help deliver our baby accepted Husky insurance. Not only were we covered, but we got to make real choices about what kind of medical care was right for us. Incredible. It was as if we lived in France. I was really relieved to be working with midwives, especially being pregnant at 38. Through any hospital, I would have been seen as high risk and pressured into lots of extra tests and stress. I read recently that the average vaginal delivery with no complications in the United States comes with a price tag of more than $30,000. The midwives explained all the tests I could take, why people take them, and then she let Patrick and I make our own decisions about what made sense for us. We did a couple ultrasounds and made sure I wasn’t anemic and that was pretty much it. I was healthy and strong and the baby was growing just fine.
Then, the big day came. Water broke, contractions started, family and midwives were called … and time passed. The better part of three days came and went and we labored — me and Patrick, the baby, the midwives, my mom and my family. Finally, the midwives said, “The baby is posterior. The baby is stuck. We need to go to the hospital.”
The local hospital told the midwives that I would go straight into surgery and have a C-section immediately. They called a hospital farther away and the doctor said, “Bring her in. You can stay with her. We’ll see what we can do to give her a natural childbirth.” We packed up for the longest car ride of my entire life. The backseat of a Toyota Corolla never seemed so small as it did at 4 a.m. with a baby trying to come out of me. It was 40 minutes of trying to ignore contractions, ignore how slow my husband was driving, ignore how uncomfortable I was, ignore that I wanted to be wearing lots more clothes or no clothes at all. But, at the hospital, an orderly named Ted was waiting with a wheelchair — “Frida, right? Let’s go.”
I cried with relief. All of a sudden I was in a room with computers and lights and nurses and monitors. Things were being attached to my body. I was being asked if I was allergic to anything and if I wanted to be visited by the chaplain. I got an epidural. The doctor examined me, suggested a forceps assist to get the baby out.
“You are going to need to push,” he said. “I am just going to direct the head. We only have a few tries. Can you do that? If it doesn’t work, we will bring you to surgery and do a C-section. Is that okay?”
“Yes, yes,” I responded.
So I went from the quiet intensity of home labor, where it was dark, warm and full of whispered suggestions, to the tightly controlled chaos of the hospital, where it was bright and cold and full of shouted commands. Soon, there he was — his head all misshapen, like an Incan pyramid: stepped and conical. He had worked so hard against my body. His eyes were so bright. He was so alive. We nursed. We laughed. We cried. And we stayed in the hospital for two more days and nights. Everyone took such good care of us and taught us how to take care of our precious little one. His head magically got round and smooth. We named him Seamus Philip Berrigan Sheehan-Gaumer.
Lucky: That is how I felt all the way through. Lucky to have midwives. Lucky to be able to go to the hospital when it was absolutely necessary. Lucky to be able to deliver my baby the old-fashioned way. Lucky to have a healthy whole little one. Lucky to be covered. It was all covered. We did not get a big scary bill from Middlesex Hospital. It was covered. This is what I wish for all people. This is what a civilized and just society provides for its people. This is a right.