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"A de-gloving of the lower left extremity" is the medical term for the injury that I sustained on Thursday, February 13, 2014. A de-gloving usually results in amputation. Just a few hours before, I had been your average uninsured 25-year-old, struggling, trying to make it in New York City on the way to an (unpaid) gig. In less than a day, I became the poster child for Obamacare.
Before the accident, my career as a stand-up comedian and actress had been thriving. I had just come off an audition for Saturday Night Live, and although I wasn't hired, being "looked at" by NBC got me an amazing manager, who sent me on my first pilot season. My first real, on-camera audition was for Orange Is the New Black, and I couldn't have felt more inspired.
My personal life, however, had been suffering. After getting five months behind on my $900 rent in Crown Heights, I had to move out. I rented a U-Haul van to keep all my things in and, occasionally, to sleep in. Finding stable work was hard; I was barely getting by with freelance gigs and part-time work, from which I made just enough for a MetroCard and food. Unpaid internships were falling out of the sky, though. Health care didn't cross my mind. I've never been the type to get sick or catch winter colds, and even if I do feel one coming on, I can usually nip it in the bud with home remedies like ginger tea, turmeric, or an aloe-vera plant.
One morning during Fashion Week, I was booked to shoot a comedy video with another up-and-coming comedian, John Early. The premise of the video was for John and me to come in with prewritten jokes about the movie Cruel Intentions. I had never seen it, and neither had John. So we decided to meet early (ha) to watch it, write our jokes, and then head to the set. I left my friend's place in SoHo, where I'd crashed the night before, to find a full-on blizzard outside. Up to that point, I'd been keeping my clothing in the van. But it had been towed, so I was without the majority of my heavy coats and winter clothing. I've also never been a big breakfast person, so I hadn't eaten. I can clearly hear Michelle Obama's voice saying "Young people think they're invincible" during a promo for Obamacare.
I had no idea how the accident happened. I still don't. But I woke up on the tracks of the train. My left leg was pinned underneath the wheel of the first train car. Most of the skin was gone, and a lot of bone was exposed. I was taken to Bellevue Hospital — the oldest hospital in the nation and soon to be my new home for the next two and a half months of my life.
"Do you have insurance?" became a regular question that brought me to tears to answer. Every blood-transfusion request from a well-meaning doctor turned into an argument, with me screaming that I couldn't afford it to the poor sap who was just trying to save my life. I knew my medical bills were piling up, and I knew they weren't going to be cheap. I learned about emergency Medicaid (opens in new tab), to which I was entitled because my injury was severe and I was uninsured. However, I didn't learn about this through my social worker. I learned about it from my friend Jordana, whose mother works at a hospital in Queens. I don't know what I would have done without them.
Not only were Jordana and her mother helping me, but the comedy communities in New York and Los Angeles were beginning to help me as well. Sue Smith, a comedian at Upright Citizens Brigade and a good friend of mine, created a YouCaring page to help raise money for my medical bills, and before we knew it, big-name comedians like Aziz Ansari, Louis CK, and Chelsea Peretti were all donating, tweeting, and organizing benefit shows. (My bills, by the way, came to a whopping total of $405,000.)
I was discharged from Bellevue in May 2014. It was insanely expensive for me to stay in New York. My mother and I wanted to head home to South Carolina, because we thought it best to go to a more affordable state, regardless of its public reputation. I came up with a compromise with my surgeons that I would stay in New York for a few weeks and come in for outpatient-clinic visits to be sure the final skin grafts were taking and healing properly. There was a huge concern about my being exposed to viruses and diseases since I had been in the hospital for such a long time. We were able to return to South Carolina in mid-June 2014; upon our return home, we immediately applied for disability benefits there.
I was denied for disability twice, and my third appeal was approved over a year later, in March 2015. I now have Medicaid, which covers a good portion of doctor's visits, as well as most medicines. However, I still must come up with co-pay fees, which add up considering the tightly fixed income that I now rely on. I also have to pay out of pocket for expensive bandages, lotions, creams, and other things that Medicaid won't cover, like custom compression garments that my physical therapist and plastic surgeon required to attempt to reduce swelling and pain.
The disability benefits that I was awarded in March 2015 total about $750 a month. Because I'm recuperating at my mother's house and she's disabled too, the state is attempting to cut her benefits. Apparently, we collectively accumulate $40 too much, according to Social Security benefit guidelines. Our SNAP benefits were just cut off as well, so having access to fresh, healthy foods is now another stress that we must add on to our daily battle to simply survive as non-wealthy — need I say, black — people in America.
Though there are fewer uninsured young adults than there were before the Affordable Care Act was passed, about a quarter of Americans ages 18 to 25 still don't have health insurance (opens in new tab). South Carolina was one of several states (opens in new tab) that did not accept the ACA's Medicaid expansion, which makes health care available to a greater percentage of low-income people. You might think you're invincible too — but you're not. I'm the poster child for Obamacare because you don't want something like this to happen to you.
It's pathetic that pretty much every developed country (opens in new tab) except for the United States has universal health care. I now have several medical appointments daily with physical therapists, orthopedic surgeons, plastic surgeons, and dermatologists. All of them are terrified to prescribe me pain meds because of our country's problem with substance abuse, even though I now suffer from chronic pain. Dealing with the insane complications of the medical industry has pushed me beyond depression and made my recovery much harder. I am now back in my wheelchair after making a little progress walking over the summer. After surviving a near-death experience, being faced with all the health care system's obstacles feels like I'm being hit by the subway train all over again.
Open enrollment for the Health Insurance Marketplace started on November 1. If you're uninsured, click here for more information (opens in new tab).
Liza Dye is a classically trained theater actress, writer, and comedian currently residing in South Carolina.
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