A Tacoma woman without health insurance faced a difficult heart surgery, but the support of her care team and a local organization influenced her to attend nursing school.
Elizabeth had been avoiding doctors for years after one cardiologist told her she would die from her heart condition.
She sat in his office, unable to say a word because she was still learning English after immigrating to the United States from Mexico. She came to the Pacific Northwest with her uncle at 14 years old, tearfully leaving her parents behind and starting a new life. Stunned by the experience, it wasn’t until November 2015 when she decided to go to a small clinic near her Tacoma-area home because she was stricken by spells of dizziness and breathlessness. That visit turned into an appointment with St. Joseph Medical Center heart surgeon Dr. Craig Hampton, who gave her hope for her future.
“By the end of January, I had all the information, and he told me, ‘You’re not going to die. We can fix that problem, but the only thing is we have to do a surgery,’” Elizabeth said. “Then we started planning that.”
Elizabeth, now 32 — whose last name is being omitted to protect her privacy — knew she had a heart murmur, but she had no idea how serious it would become until she was an adult. The mother of two was drudging school through Tacoma Community College where she learned English, took her GED, and was going for an associate degree, though she wasn’t sure what she’d get her degree in. Fear and anxiety cascaded through her as Dr. Hampton and her nurse, Karen, told her she’d have to take six weeks off for her surgery, one that she had no idea how she’d pay for without medical insurance.
Not long into the process, Elizabeth was connected to Pierce County Project Access, one of the few remaining nonprofits in the state that offers sponsored medical insurance and access to pro bono health care through its network of physicians that have donated about $7 million in care this year, and about $41 million since its inception in 2009.
Executive Director Leanne Noren estimates about 50,000 people in Pierce County are without health insurance. Noren said by the time the PCPA sees some of its clients, they haven’t been to the doctor in 10-plus years, and, generally, there’s some kind of health issue brewing.
“Maybe a patient just felt bad and didn’t know why, and maybe they managed it through a free clinic,” she said. “Those are the folks that are getting referred to us, and generally they are in pretty stressful or tense situations and are in need of immediate attention.”
The enrollment process can be completed in a couple days, Noren said. After that, PCPA schedules a patient’s appointments and the care is free for qualifying, low-income county residents. Most of the organizations shuttered their doors after the Affordable Care Act intended for all citizens to have health insurance. Not knowing how it would play out, Noren said the PCPA stayed open. Referrals dropped at first, but with the rising cost of premiums, the PCPA is experiencing a rise in program enrollment.
“They paid for my heart surgery,” Elizabeth said. “It was really easy. The difficult part was having someone who could drive me, but I’m really grateful to have the (PCPA) by my side. … I worked mostly with Vanessa, and she explained everything. It was so comfortable to work with her. You can feel that compassion.”
Elizabeth had her heart surgery in March 2016, after delaying it slightly so she could go to school. Her parents, stayed with her and her fiancé to ease the process. But the surgery was more difficult than doctors anticipated, and Elizabeth was kept in the hospital a few extra days. Her nurse, Karen, always came to her room with a warm smile and an explanation about her status.
The painful recovery process dragged on for six months. Unable to drive, she was trapped at home with few people who could take her places, but her care team continued to be a flicker of encouragement. During the worst days, when the stress and pain felt unending, Dr. Hampton and her nurses told her, “’We promise you’ll be fine. You have to go through this, but you’ll be fine.’ Not every doctor or nurse cares like that,” she said.
Elizabeth said she’s in good health now. Her heart murmur is still present, but it doesn’t bother her anymore.
“I can walk and have a conversation with my daughters without suffering dizziness, which happened every hour,” she said. “Now I can have a normal life.”
Though the experience is one of the most difficult she’s faced, it also inspired her to become a nurse. She’s currently attending classes at Tacoma Community College and hopes to continue through school to achieve her newfound dream of helping others the way her care team helped her.
“Don’t stop dreaming,” she said. “When I noticed all my problems and what happened, I had option A and option B. I started thinking, maybe it’s time to stop dreaming and be awake all the time — to be honest (with myself) about what’s going on. But that’s not true. Even in that situation, you can inspire others and be a nurse in the future.”