As a 34-year-old divorced college student, with little outside income, and a pre-existing medical condition, I am one reason the health care reform was a necessity.
When I began working as an actor as a teenager, one of the perks was comprehensive insurance coverage through the Screen Actors Guild. Up until six years ago, I never even needed it.
Then, one day, when I was 26 and living in Los Angeles, I experienced a sharp pain in my right side that lasted for hours. My husband drove me straight to the emergency room.
For the rest of the evening I was put in different machines, had goo rubbed on my belly and iodine pumped through my veins. Twelve hours later, when we were both punchy with worry, a doctor came in and announced, "Well, the good news is, they're benign."
My husband and I looked at each other. "What
are benign?" we asked.
Turns out there were non-cancerous tumors taking up 60% of my liver.
That day, they diagnosed me with "giant hemangioma" -- heman
is Latin for blood. Basically I had giant sacks of blood taking up the main portion of my liver.
It's a rare thing, but a lot of women do have small hemangiomas -- they're connected to hormones. Mine were unusually large, and dangerous in the sense that I could have bled to death at any moment if I had any sort of blunt force to my abdomen.
Over the next four years I was injected with experimental treatments, subjected to MRIs every three months, and shuttled around the country to meet with doctors in the hopes of finding a cure. Everyone was very reluctant to operate: They wanted to try everything before doing such an invasive and dangerous surgery -- cutting a young woman's chest open -- but it got to the point where my chest was so distended, I could barely breathe.
When they finally did operate, they took a football-sized tumor out of my liver and pronounced the operation a success. I was left to heal from the large incisions.
The scar runs from right under my breastbone to my bellybutton, and across my stomach, and it is not an easy thing for a former Maxim cover girl to hide.
In fact, my whole diagnosis meant I had to retire from acting altogether.
It wasn't just the scar -- which people sometimes say looks like a supersized peace sign -- or a Mercedes symbol. It seems I'm not very insurable as a leading lady. Production companies take out insurance policies on all assets of their production, including their actors. With such a large scar and pre-existing condition, I was virtually uninsurable, even in the glamorous, fake world of Hollywood.
Acting was a career I had worked hard at since I was 15, but after my surgery I was dropped from my Screen Actor's Guild insurance. Even though I had paid into their policy since I was practically a kid, now when I needed it, it wasn't there: I was no longer earning enough to be covered.
Luckily, I was able to transfer to my husband's insurance. Then, last year, we separated. Part of our agreement was that he would allow me to continue to be covered by his policy, but, in the process, there was a terrible mistake.
One day I walked into the doctor's office for a routine post-op check up. After my appointment, I was about to leave, when the receptionist called me back to her desk.
"Jennifer? Do you have any new insurance for us to use?"
"No, use the same one," I smiled. "I just had surgery, it should work."
The white-coated woman nodded her head and handed me the phone, with the insurance company on the other end.
That's when I discovered my ex-husband's manager had made an irreversible filing error that resulted in me being kicked off his COBRA retroactively. In other words, my last eight months of treatment -- surgery, medication, MRIs at $19,000 a pop -- had not been covered.
It takes a lot to reduce me to tears, but that day in the doctor's office I was near hysteria.
"Please, I'm sick, I can't lose my insurance," I begged to the insurance lady on the phone.
It was too late, she told me. The decision had been made.
The ironic thing is, if I were a professor, I'd practically be tenured by now. I've probably paid more taxes than your average 50-year-old, but now the illness that meant I could no longer work in the profession I had for the last decade and a half also robbed me of my right to be insured. It was terrifying.
Luckily, because I had moved to New York in January to go back to school -- a move to carve out a new career -- I opted into the limited policy my college offered, so at least my prescriptions would be covered. Still, in my condition, I knew I needed more.
When I applied to Blue Cross, I was promptly denied due to "pre-existing conditions."
By the way, having your chest cut open is not the only way to be determined un-insurable. Pregnant? That's a pre-existing condition. Ever seen a therapist and been prescribed antidepressants? You have one, too. Susceptible to chronic urinary tract infections or kidney stones? You guessed it. Asthma? Ditto.
In fact, it wasn't until our government passed the health care bill I so often hear referred to -- with a derogatory slur -- as "ObamaCare" that I earned the right to be covered under the new Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan.
This is the bridge plan that will cover some of the most vulnerable of America's citizens -- the middle class who are still paying taxes, but who aren't quite poor or elderly enough to qualify for Medicare or Medicaid.
In other words, people like me.
Now -- as I put it -- I'm a highly functioning sick girl, and one who's unbelievably grateful to her government for the work Congress and the President did last year, giving me the ability to stay healthy.
In my past I may have been a Maxim cover girl, but today I'm content to be the poster girl for health care reform that has kept me an active member of society.
Jennifer Sky is studying creative writing at The New School in New York. She currently writes for young adults, has plans to begin a memoir based on her "Hollywood Illness," and hopes to return to acting one day. You can find her at her website, Jennifersky.com