By Lily Cohen
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
A few months ago, paramedics rushed me to the emergency room because of a tiny bite of cake. I had been eating dinner with my roommate and her family when a waiter brought dessert to the table. I did not intend to dabble in dessert, but chocolate cake is often too much of a temptation for me to pass up. In between the layers of chocolate cake, there appeared to be a thick layer of vanilla ice cream, slightly darkened by the late hour at which we were eating. As I took a bite, I immediately recognized a nutty flavor, a flavor I do not often have the privilege to enjoy because of my severe allergies to peanuts and tree nuts. Looking back, the ice cream was clearly not a pearly white, vanilla-y color shaded by the night sky, but in fact the tan color of peanut butter ice cream.
I have had several brushes with my allergies in the past, but this reaction was the scariest. Usually, I can get away with throwing up the toxin, taking an antihistamine, and I am fine. Not this time.
My tongue began to swell and my heartbeat quickened as I realized the seriousness of the situation. I did not bring my Epi-Pen with me, but a generous patron of the restaurant went searching for one nextdoor. A stranger gave up their Epi-Pen to help me, a truly selfless act because those things are expensive. Moments after injecting myself, I was whisked away in an ambulance per the advice of a dining doctor.
Months later, the emergency room bill arrived at my house. The ambulance ride alone cost one thousand dollars. My family owes UPMC because I had a potentially deadly allergic reaction. According to my discharge papers, allergic reactions are ranked high on the emergency scale; they are considered life-threatening situations that require immediate medical attention. Yet, once you are treated and safe, you are sent a little present in the mail. The bill’s large sum conveys the gravity of the situation but illuminates the inhumane and insensitive nature of our healthcare system. I was in danger, with no other option but to seek medical care and then my family is charged for the saving of my life? Medical teams are available to us, but the cost of healthcare and insurance makes that resource more inaccessible.
In addition to my many allergies, I also have a chronic health condition. Three years ago, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, an Inflammatory Bowel Disease that commandeers my overall health. Thankfully, I am currently in remission, but this period of relief is not guaranteed forever. I must live with the fear that my debilitating pain may return or develop into something worse. To manage my symptoms and any pain, I inject myself every two weeks with Humira, a biologic that you may know from their frequent television-ads. My body needs this medication in order to feel healthy. Without insurance and subsidies from Humira’s drug company, my medication would cost five thousand dollars. This is a hefty amount of money for most Americans, especially those who cannot afford insurance. If someone needs to pay for their medications out of pocket, can they afford to buy groceries for the week, pay their mortgage, rent, or any other important expenses? We should all have equal access to health services, not have to forgo them in order to survive.
Not only do I take the pricey Humira, but there are a plethora of other drugs that my family has to pay for. I take twenty-five pills and seven vitamins a week to manage my Crohn’s symptoms and to combat any drug side effects. I also have asthma, so I need two different, up-to-date inhalers at all times. Lastly, I am prescribed Epi-Pens for allergy emergencies. All of these medications have out-of-pocket costs, even though I am a fortunate individual with health insurance.
Luckily, my family has health insurance, but we had to change our plan for the new year. My mother had to leave her job in June, where health insurance was an included benefit and the health insurance of her two children came out of her paycheck every two weeks. We were no longer able to afford the insurance we once had, so my mother spent countless hours looking for a cheaper one. The one we settled on does not cover as much as our old one did.
With our new plan, being ill feels even more like a burden than it did before. There is also an added layer of shame because I am so young. Youth is often conflated with health, but this is not always the case. I am merely nineteen and will forever bare the weight of my conditions.
My afflictions will remain a constant in my life and so will the financial stress. I am not choosing to be sick, but the reality is that I am. Those with chronic illnesses must endure intense physical suffering, so why should they be subjected to financial suffering as well?
For a middle-class family it is not ideal to spend so much money on health insurance, but at least we know we are covered. There are thousands of people in this country who cannot afford that safety. The healthcare system is horribly designed. Why do we isolate those who need our help the most? Doctors have a duty to help the sick, the broken, and every citizen in this country. The price of health insurance is making that impossible.
I fear that one day, I will put my parents and myself into so much debt because I dare to be sick. Humira is an immunosuppressant drug and so my immune system is weaker than the average person. At any moment, I could easily catch a cold, pneumonia, or Covid-19. I worry about what will happen if I need more medication, if I contract a serious illness, or if I have another emergency. Tons of money already goes towards buying my health, but my health should not be bought. My health should be an unencumbered freedom. Everyone is entitled to health and wellness; it is dishonorable and unjust that we live in a world without that privilege.
Lily Cohen is a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh where she intends to study Digital Media. She hails from Philadelphia and until this year, she had lived there all her life. She is working on becoming trilingual as well as perfecting her command of the English language. Every day, she continues to navigate the world with her 20 plus allergies and numerous other health conditions.