“Charity begins at home and justice begins next door.” Charles Dickens
It’s a scenario that could happen to any one of us.
No, not Hurricane Katrina, but the aftermath of simply driving down a quiet rural road — minding the speed limit and minding one’s own business. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an oncoming car crosses the double yellow line and veers into your lane. Disaster strikes.
That’s exactly what happened to Suzanne Blake on the morning of Aug. 19, as she slowly drove along a rural, two-lane road in Northern Arizona. It was a warm but clear day, and the road posed no hazards as the former nurse, who is in her early 60s, ran her usual errands around the area.
Rounding a curve in the road, a white four-door sedan traveling in the opposite direction crossed the yellow line into her lane. In order to avoid a head-on collision, Suzanne instinctively turned her car onto the right shoulder. It spun twice, hitting an embankment, and her head crashed into the windshield, shattering it. All she remembered was excruciating pain — and seeing the young male driver of the mid-to-late ’90s car continue on, without stopping, in her rearview mirror — while she lay there bleeding for what seemed like an eternity.
“I was terrified … all I could see was this thing where my leg was supposed to be, but it was all contorted and lobbed over,” Suzanne said. “I was in a state of panic and wanted to scream but couldn’t because I was in complete shock. And I was appalled by the hit-and-run driver’s cavalier attitude and irresponsibility toward human life.”
While there were no witnesses, a motorist who happened to be a paramedic fortunately came along and stopped to help. Suzanne’s forehead was bleeding profusely and she sustained severe cuts and bruises to her face and body. Her right femur was broken in the accident, which required immediate surgery. She screamed in pain as the EMTs rushed her to a nearby hospital, and she still remains in severe pain after a rod was hammered into the broken bone. Still, Suzanne says, she is grateful to have her life.
Picking up the pieces
While the nation expresses its shock in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Suzanne’s friends and neighbors echo similar dismay over the demise of her life as she once knew it. Faced with “shocking” hospital bills and no health insurance — like 45 million other Americans — she doesn’t know how she’s going to survive financially and maintain her well-being.
She had seen it all during her laborious years of nursing — the sick, the dying, the injured and the disabled. Then she joined their ranks when she seriously hurt her back in an industrial accident that put her on disability, a system which she claims keeps people like herself on the brink of poverty, with just enough compensation to keep them above the legal poverty line — and ineligible for social services and financial assistance.
Suzanne doesn’t have Medicare and receives just $60 above the poverty limit each month. Therefore, she remains ineligible for Arizona Heath Care Cost Containment System medical coverage. According to her, disability is intentionally low, like unemployment insurance. “They intimidated me out of filing for an appeal,” she said. And, according to many others on disability, their compensation has remained unchanged for nearly 10 years.
“They toss you just enough so you can barely stay alive in a world where prices like gasoline have gone totally wild,” she said. “There’s no way anyone can survive on such income.”
According to Suzanne, the problem is an insidious one. “It goes from the local level right on up to the federal government,” she said. “Their meaningless platitudes offer no viable solutions or anything of merit. There’s this unbearable indifference to the problems of older individuals, especially women, despite their efforts to maintain a decent standard of living in these times of economic crisis.”
Suzanne already had a limp prior to the wreck. Now crippled due to her broken femur, she doesn’t know if she’ll walk again for at least six months after physical therapy — if she can afford it. She is unable to lift, stoop or twist and has no spouse or family to assist her.
“It was difficult enough with my limp before this happened,” Suzanne said. “But now they don’t know if I’m ever going to be normal again.”
Thanks to the staggering pile of hospital, surgical and medical bills, she worries she’ll lose the home she’s maintained for more than a dozen years. “Between the pain and the worry, I have this overriding fear that I will be rendered bankrupt and destitute and lose everything,” she said. “There’s no one to help me, and the system just leaves you out to dry.”
Currently, Suzanne’s mortgage, water and other utility bills remain unpaid due to the medical industry’s demand for minimum payments. Her basic liability auto insurance doesn’t cover a replacement vehicle, nor any medical benefits. Out of propane and unable to take hot baths or cook wholesome meals, she remains even more crippled — financially — than ever before and is already besieged with what she calls “predatory collection agencies.” Worst of all, she remains in terrible pain and unable to get around on her own.
“I just don’t know how I’m going to get through this,” Suzanne said from her hospital bed at VVMC a week after the accident. “My blood pressure is way up and I’m scared to death I could end up with a stroke from all the financial worry. I’m trying like crazy not to get in that mode. All I want is to be able to take a warm bath. I really don’t know how I can haul pots of hot water from the microwave to the tub while I’m in a walker.”
No rhyme or reason
For some things in life, there’s simply no explanation.
The same week that Suzanne’s ordeal began, a wild, random shooting spree left two young Wal-Mart employees dead in a Phoenix Supercenter parking lot. Lacking any motive, the senseless massacre left shoppers stunned and dismayed. Another week later, the hurricane left some 1,000 dead in the Gulf.
Like Suzanne and these innocent victims, no one is ever completely insulated from unpredictable and inexplicable crisis. Indeed, each and every one of us may be just one paycheck, one job injury, one accident, one shooting, one Social Security check or one stock market crash from disaster.
How are America’s communities prepared in the event of an earthquake, a gas pipeline rupture, nuclear explosion, terrorist attack or even a financial crash? How will we interact with each other when the last drop of gasoline runs out, the last drop of water leaves the tap or the last piece of food leaves the shelf? Will we react like the young Domino’s Pizza delivery driver in Phoenix two years ago, who chased gasoline trucks with a loaded shotgun after the pumps ran dry? Are we a Louisiana or a Suzanne waiting to happen?
Certainly both leave such food for thought in the wake of their havoc. Like the hurricane, Suzanne’s accident sends us an all-too-painful reminder that we, as a society and a nation, loiter in denial, dysfunction and disorder. Like the hurricane, her scenario will evoke all the finger-pointing of blame to a lack of responsibility … she should’ve had this and done that, she should’ve had more coverage on her car and she should’ve gotten health insurance. But like the hurricane survivors who had no resources and therefore nowhere to go, so Suzanne couldn’t squeeze blood from a stone.
Warnings urged residents to flee the hurricane’s onslaught, but only those who could afford to do so avoided the ensuing horror at the New Orleans Convention Center. Likewise, the financial analysts and columnists warn workers to save for retirement while media ads deliver contradictory messages: “Buy more! Spend now!” — mostly to accumulate junk we don’t really need.
“Anyone who thinks they can save money for retirement with the current wages or disability income, in light of the cost of living, is fooling themselves,” said Suzanne. “When you see the blasts that working people have been hit with — the frozen wages, the cost of medical insurance, the loss of pensions, the price of gas — you see that there’s nowhere for them to turn. The experts all say we have to save, but there’s nothing to even make bill payments from, let alone save for the future. It’s total insanity.”
Between rock and hard place
According to Suzanne, “too many Americans have lost their ability to think, let alone comprehend what’s really going on in this country.”
“We’re lost as a society, and denial is a huge problem,” she declared. “We need compassionate people in political leadership to start positive change. There has to be a demonstrative paradigm for compassion — there’s so little of it left.”
Suzanne is not alone. Not far from her hospital bed, an elderly man trudged with difficulty along the highway in Arizona’s searing heat, walking to a bank more than seven miles away, to deposit his first Social Security check.
After a lifetime of hard work, the $400 monthly income just wasn’t enough, he explained. Still he must toil somehow to make up the shortfall by doing odd jobs, washing dishes and the like. He couldn’t afford to repair his ’73 truck and was depending on rides to get to his jobs. Plus his water was shut off because he didn’t have enough to pay the bill and he wondered how he would clean his clothes for work.
Nobody ever said life was easy, but it’s a long, hard, lonely road for him, Suzanne and others like them who have labored hard all their lives for nothing.
“It’s such a travesty when the system slams the door on you,” Suzanne said. “We’re good, decent, hard-working folks who dedicated our lives to our jobs, our employers and the public. We’re not people who milk the system.”
At a time when our societal systems — political, medical and social — are failing us, we must stand by one another in whatever way we can. We as a community cannot leave our neighbors along the wayside like roadkill, nor let them fall into potholes of a heartless system. Is hot water too much for a retired or disabled individual to ask for? Is that so terrible, to want a warm bath in your golden years?
“I’ve tried so hard, I’ve worked so hard,” said Suzanne, in tears. “But it isn’t working. I busted my tail in health care all my life taking care of other people and then health care put a foot in my face. The degradation of our society has to stop somewhere. It cannot continue forever.”
In every disaster, from 9/11 and the London bombings to the hurricanes, innocent workers have become victims. Like 9/11 and Katrina, working people step up to lend a hand and dig in their pockets to compensate for government and medical system neglect. Again, another victim of the system needs our help. When we dig others out of their troubles — whether in Louisiana or Arizona — we will find a place to bury our own.
Catherine J. Rourke is an award-winning journalist from Arizona who specializes in workplace and social reform issues. This article originally appeared in The Red Rock Review and an excerpted version is reprinted here with permission by the author. For information on how you can help Suzanne, e-mail Catherine Rourke at: