A system with no compassion: one woman's story

susan and dog

CHICAGO - She asked not to use her real name, so she will be referred to as Susan.

Doctors have told "Susan" she has about a year to live, unless she receives a liver transplant. But Susan, 47, is unemployed, too sick to work and has no health insurance. She also hasn't told her family about her condition.

She lives here in the working-class Bridgeport neighborhood on the city's south side. Originally from Wauconda, a northwest Chicago suburb, Susan moved here when she was about 21 years old.

Besides having a bad liver, Susan also has a serious thyroid condition, a bad heart, poor lungs and an extreme case of asthma. She says she takes six different kinds of medication a day and carries several inhalers with her everywhere she goes.

At one point, Susan said, she was buying her thyroid medication from a local pharmacist friend, because she couldn't afford to buy it anywhere else. However, her thyroid condition needs to be monitored every six months, which would mean changing the dosage of her medicine. Since she couldn't afford to see a doctor that often, she ended up taking the wrong amount, worsening her health.

"I am at the hospital constantly and have weekly appointments all the way through September," she said.

Susan has tried to apply for medical assistance but has been denied by government agencies that say she isn't disabled and therefore doesn't qualify.

"I'm not asking for any handouts. I just want to stay alive. I want to find work, but I have trouble breathing," she said.

Susan lives with a friend and said her father and three brothers don't know she only has a year to live.

"I don't want to make them suffer, and I don't want them to go broke to keep me alive."

She adds that 15 percent of her liver is still working. "I'm just hoping it doesn't give out," she said.

To make matters worse, Susan said, her electricity was recently cut off because she couldn't afford to pay the bill. Luckily, the matter was resolved, for now, due to the help of a friend.

Meanwhile, a collection agency is sending notices to Susan to pay for an outstanding medical bill after she suffered an asthma attack last year. She was rushed to the nearest hospital in an ambulance, where she was admitted for a week.

Susan says she also frequently visits her area food pantries.

"Our health care system sucks. These days it's either pay for my medicine or buy food to eat," said Susan. "It just keeps getting worse. I don't have any money, and I don't know how to get out of this hole. It's like I'm sinking in quicksand."

Susan said she wants to share her story so that others don't have to deal with the struggles she faces.

"We're talking about real people with families that should be treated with respect. Where's the compassion? We're all in this world together. It's not that difficult of a concept - to care about each other. It's really frustrating, and what does this say about our society to sit and watch people who can't afford to exist? Is living too much to ask?"

Melissa Parks is an intake worker at the Bridgeport Volunteer Center, where she has helped thousands from the area seeking energy assistance to pay for high gas and light bills. She was there when Susan walked in, seeking help after her electricity was turned off.

"It really hurts to hear that they turned off her light," said Parks. "When so many people are falling on hard times, why are the utility companies raising their rates? Families are barely surviving on what they have." Parks added, "The big guys that own these companies and their rich executives should take a pay cut and have some compassion for others."

Parks notes, "Everyone should have access to health care. It's not right when people who are sick have to choose between their medicine or pay for food."

Parks says people like Susan need to know they're not alone while struggling for health care, a decent job and to put food on the table.

Susan said it is overburdening to live in fear and terror, not knowing day to day if she is going to make it. But the one thing that gets her through is her four-legged companion, Sadie, an American bulldog. "She's my buddy. When I'm sick she lays on top of me and always makes me feel a lot better," she said.

Photo: Susan poses with her dog Sadie. Pepe Lozano/PW