Cindy Chapman is gone: a victim of our failing health care system

(editor’s note: This op/ed piece can be found in the current issue of InCity Times. Usually, I wait a few weeks or even a month to post some of the content from InCity Times on our website. But because I have gotten some calls by people who were so moved by the story – and a special request by an ICT reader to post this story on our website ASAP so other folks can read it – I am breaking my rule. Here’s hoping even MORE people read this moving/tragic story and work (in Cindy’s name) for UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE. – R.T.)

By Chris Horton

Cindy Chapman died Sunday morning at Umass Memorial Hospital in Worcester, MA, of complications due to cancer. She came here two years ago from New York City to find a new place and start a new life and now she is gone, victim of a failing safety net and a failing health care system. Ironically one of the attractions for her locating here was the reputation of our health care system. We know so little about her, why she was here and where she was coming from, what she left behind and why – yet we know everything about her too, because we know what she did and what she stood for, and we had the chance to see what she was made of when she was staring death in the face and making her final choices.

Cindy settled into Bancroft Towers, across from City Hall, with her cat Ugay. To people who work or live downtown she must have been a familiar sight, a perky little woman in her trademark beret or headscarf, walking Ugay around the Common on a leash. She volunteered on behalf of many causes to benefit the common people, and was a valued part of the campaign to elect Barack Obama, and a proud and unapologetic progressive, a member and volunteer of Progressive Democrats of America and Neighbor-to-Neighbor. always ready to dig in and help to make life better for others.

She spoke Yiddish and Spanish fluently and was ecumenical in her approach to others, but had no tolerance for liars, humbugs and those who gloried in making others feel small and useless. On them she could unleashed a sharp and biting tongue backed by a quick and powerful mind. But those of us who knew her and worked with her will miss the erudite wit and social commentary, her enthusiasm and resourcefulness. She kept us laughing – and thinking – until her dying day.

Cindy was an intensely political person whose commitment to fighting for health care reform in America transmuted into a fight against the way the medical system was failing her, although just how badly it was failing her even she didn’t realize until we finally got her admitted to a hospital. She wanted to make sure that what happened to her wouldn’t happen to anyone else.

Cindy, who was on SSD after many years of working as a paralegal, had been getting gradually sicker and had been suffering from increasing levels of pain in various parts of her body. She had for some time been searching for a personal physician who would take her under Medicare. When she tried to change physicians – as people sometimes need to do – she came up against the fact that there is a huge backlog of patients – now in the thousands in Worcester – for whom no primary care physician can be found. For the past year she reported she had been relying on visits to the emergency rooms in the UMass System. She reported that the Family Health Center (FHC) Dental Clinic had repeatedly cancelled her appointments to have several abscessed teeth removed, and it was her theory that her problems stemmed from the infection from these abscesses spreading through her body.

I had lost touch with her for some months, until I called her on the phone about five weeks ago and she asked me to visit. I went with a friend and found her living in her room surrounded by all the consequences of being unable to take care of or even properly feed herself. She told us that Commonwealth Care would not cover home health visits. Another friend with a social service background made a serious effort to hook her up with a home health care agency and came up against the same problem: funding had been cut and there were long lists of people waiting for those services, or else her income from SSD was too high and she was in eligible.

For whatever reason, the ER physicians on whom Cindy was relying would not give her a prescription strong enough to control her pain, and in recent weeks she had been going to the ER every few days, the only way she could get pain medication strong enough to give her relief. Three weeks ago she went into the University Campus ER and refused to be discharged, insisting that they admit her to the hospital and find out what was wrong. She told us – and had the bruises to prove it – that they called in the campus police, who yanked this tiny woman roughly and twisted her arm when she would not go quietly.

Another friend finally found a physician who would see her, who spent two and a half hours with her, really listened to her and got her admitted to Memorial Hospital. Within a day they had diagnosed the problem as cancer. Stage 4 cancer. Already spread throughout her body, and so far advanced it was difficult to determine where it started. They rushed her into therapy, but much too late. In a little over two weeks she was gone.

Cindy took the news that her death was imminent bravely and philosophically, but she was very angry. Fighting to keep functioning in the borderland between overwhelming pain and a morphine stupor, and despite a racking cough and a desperate struggle to breathe, she never gave in to self-pity so far as we could see. Her first concern, after making sure that Ugay was taken care of, was to have me bring her phone, her Rolladex file, her portable scanner and her computer, weapons for her final battle, which was to find out how such a failure could have happened, and to get our Rep. McGovern to look into her case and take steps to make sure it could never happen again to anyone else.

This past Saturday, her last day of life, Gladys Rodriguez from McGovern’s office spent several hours with her at the hospital, and the good Congressman gave her a phone call. Her close friend Marianne Bergenholtz, who was with her on Saturday, said that speaking with the Congressman and Gladys finally gave her peace.

She was 48 years old.

For those who knew Cindy, her death makes the failure of the US health care system very personal and immediate. It reminds us that when we say this is a life-and-death issue, that’s very real. And her story brings home the fact that the Massachusetts model – on which Obama is basing his health reform proposals – is failing around us, and that we are living in a fools paradise if we think that somehow, because we live in Massachusetts, we will be spared the worst of it. Five weeks ago, by speaker phone because she was unable to get out of bed and come in person, spoke to us forcefully at a PDA (Progressive Democrats of America) chapter meeting about the need to focus on the fight for Single Payer – Medicare for All – which she insisted is the only real solution to the health care crisis.

If Cindy could speak to us now I am sure she would tell us all to get informed, get involved and do something – join PDA, DFA (Democracy for America) or some other grass-roots organization that is working for health care reform and help make a mighty noise that can’t be ignored. She would I am certain have echoed Joe Hill’s final words: “Don’t mourn! Organize!”

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