Sue Kerr: There’s nothing to romanticize about dying uninsured

By August 22, 2018 No Comments

My friend Kerry Kennedy died in late July, just days shy of his 61st birthday. He lived in Fineview, but was known for his frequent talk of ‘Kerryville,’ a magical place of positivity. Kerryville was never an actual place, but a frame of mind. And despite appearances to the contrary, it was this strive for positivity rather than reality that may have contributed to Kerry’s untimely death.

A small business owner, Kerry lacked health insurance for several years. He had been ill for a long time before he finally sought healthcare, but it was too late; he died the same week he was approved for a medical assistance program. It’s still not clear what killed him, but his medical team suspected he had cancer along with ongoing kidney issues.

They were waiting for his insurance to kick in to conduct the proper tests.

If you do not have affordable health insurance, please reach out to the Pennsylvania Health Access Network (PHAN) to review your options.

Kerry last posted on Facebook in the early morning hours on Thursday. His body was discovered Friday afternoon. He was alone except for his dog, Desi.

But, his death was not romantic or inevitable. We do him and others a disservice when we succumb to romantic notions of a man who died peacefully in his sleep with a beloved pet at his side without proof that was the case.

Because the proof we do have suggests otherwise; he may have suffered a great deal before passing. Even the comforting image of Kerry passing away with his faithful pet at his side isn’t based in reality; this was a traumatic experience for the dog, something Kerry would not have chosen for him to experience.

This glossing over and distancing tactic is the flip side of Kerryville, the byproduct of mid-century optimism clashing with an America that has never been great enough to care for its most vulnerable citizens. Kerryville was kind of a myth, in its own way a rejection of those values.

Kerry worked mostly retail and wholesale jobs, with creative endeavors on the side to feed his artistic soul. His lack of health insurance wasn’t a new thing; it dated back many presidential administrations ago.

But Kerry was an artist and highly intuitive. He knew creating Kerryville was a gift to others as well as himself. Like most artists, Kerry was rarely adequately compensated for his artistry. The power of positivity gave him coping skills, but that power of positivity can be easily twisted to support any narrative. Despite not having health insurance, he counted among his friends people who supported repealing the Affordable Care Act. His “friends” included people who didn’t support small business owners, who cheered the tariffs that will hit small wholesalers the hardest, who sneer at immigrant workers, who believe businesses can refuse service to gay customers simply for being who they are.  

I think Kerry hid his problems from those who cared about him because he was afraid of piercing the illusion of Kerryville. The foundation of Kerryville has been irrevocably altered by his death, but more so by the realities of his life that he kept hidden. It is impossible to imagine a Kerryville without him. And we shouldn’t. We should honor the man, not the mythology.

Because trying to preserve our preferred reality is useless. Health crises and other tragedies happen to us, as do other real world policies that impact our quality of life. Kerry’s lack of resources rendered him unable to access the healthcare he deserved, in a world class healthcare city. It wasn’t because he didn’t try. It wasn’t because he lacked the artistic talent to succeed. It wasn’t a bad attitude. It was a failure of democracy and capitalism. That’s really hard to wrap our minds around.

He tried his best, but he still he died alone.

Kerry’s gift to the world was how he lived his life, not Kerryville. We can try to erase and escape those ugly truths, or we can embrace a reality where we acknowledge that good people experience terrible circumstances, and glossing over them doesn’t help anyone.

So the way we honor Kerry is not by just saying “it was a shame he had no health insurance”; we have to improve access to healthcare for our friends and neighbors in need. We must not simply say that small businesses deserve more support; we must understand how tax code and local regulations protect small business owners as well as the public.

He may not have lived in Kerryville, but to keep the myth alive would be to dishonor its namesake. We can’t continue to ignore those in need until it’s too late. We can’t continue to deny the real impact of policies and systemic institutions in the lives of our actual friends. Otherwise, we may as well all go live in Kerryville and pretend everything is going to be fine, when we know in our guts it isn’t.

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