A little more than a year ago, a coworker, who also happened to be my girlfriend, texted me from across the building. “Do you have a minute? Let’s go for a walk.” I met her in the lobby and we started outside. Before the doors swung shut behind us, she let it out. “I found out today they’re letting me go. I have about sixty days to train my replacement. So…”
It wasn’t a big surprise. Less than a year prior, our company, a 160-person shop that built and supported a piece of e-commerce software, had been sold to a private equity firm.
Everyone took to Google the morning the transaction was announced to find that our new bosses followed the private equity playbook to the letter: acquire a few underperforming or financially vulnerable companies at once, rebrand/rename, test the individual workers, trim managers with bloated salaries or those who didn’t fit their employee profile, consolidate, outsource and relocate to a more tax-friendly state (we were in California, the company is now HQ’d in Texas) and in the meantime, strip down benefits starting with healthcare.
While all this vetting and shedding was going on, the firm’s own higher ups came in, deploying PowerPoints, offering pay cuts for employees to keep their jobs and, in general, telling lots and lots and lots of lies about an individual worker’s viability, pending prospects and the company’s outlook toward the future.
The companies they acquired, including ours, were loaded with debt. While employees were asked to pay for their own healthcare, the folks in charge traveled by charter flight, stayed in five-star hotels and strategized over long dinners. The firm took every tax break they could, paid those at the top back two-fold in the form of dividends allowed by government loopholes and hoped against hope they would come up with something they could sell to the next biggest fish to yield a 2-3x a return on their investment over a finite timeline.
In the year following the flamethrower coming to town, nearly everyone left or was axed—including the company’s founders—long-time clients started a mass exodus and any of the product’s usefulness or functionality became a memory distant.
If all this sounds overly bleak, it’s not. They had a business plan and they executed it. It wasn’t, in other words, personal. People were the last thing on their minds.
My girlfriend and I both knew early on that neither one of us was going to be a part of the company’s end game, we were more like annoying pieces necessary to complete certain tasks (she was in accounting, I was in product marketing) train our successors and be moved off the board—but the reality that one of us was going to be without a job imminently still came as a shock.
It was the difference between living on death row and being read your last rites.
A few weeks later, I was called up by my boss. She was one of the folks who had been moved in from the firm’s mothership, birthed from a grotesque pod of leadership seminars and old versions of Microsoft Office. She spoke in studied cliche and mostly non-linear snippets about efficiency and business acumen—it was like surviving next to a living, breathing and always distracted TED-talk.
I was working from home that particular Friday afternoon when I got the call. She asked if I could come to the office for our one-on-one, which was unusual. Most of the time our interactions were over Skype and boiled down to me dumping documentation on her that she may or may not have had the time to read and critique before our next meeting.
I drove in, girding myself and gripping the wheel with a “this is it” mentality.
She motioned me into her office as she was getting off the phone and I sat down.
“We’re moving your job to Dallas but not you.”
“Here is your severance package,” she slid a folder across the desk on cue. “If you think it’s fair, sign it and give it to HR. They’ll email me a copy. It’ll give you another 30 days to finish your projects and help get the new hires up to speed.”
She looked at me as I continued to sit there.
“That’s all I have for you.”
I got up and left. It was at once the most heartless and easiest letting go of my career.
My girlfriend and I figured out that night our last days at the company were going to be the exact same. We joked about it the way you do when something’s really not funny. The entirety of our household income would be obliterated at once, just in time for the holidays.
The next day, she went into hardcore planning mode with the spreadsheets, crunching the numbers. She delegated to me small but sometimes meaningful tasks. The top of my list was contacting an independent insurance agent. We had nothing stashed in the Healthcare Savings Account that the private equity firm offered and were still reeling from losing the PPO we’d enjoyed for the last half-decade with company prior to acquisition.
I should note that my girlfriend and I have a son together. Two years prior, he had miraculously flipped over during his 38th week in the womb and would have come out breech were a c-section not performed. It was a stressful time for the health and well-being of the baby and his mother, but in the end, he was born healthy and happy and she came through it with a kind of determination I didn’t know existed outside of the movies. When we received the bill from the hospital and saw that our insurance had covered nearly all of it, we breathed a sigh of relief.
Had a child not been involved, we likely would have tried to ride it out on COBRA or gone with some cut-rate plan, but we had learned from his birth that things don’t always go according to plan and making sure our toddler had ample coverage was priority one.
Our new insurance broker, herself seven months pregnant, understood our parental concern and offered us an array of plans to pay for on our own. We told her our priorities were to find coverage similar to our old PPO and hopefully come up with something that wouldn’t break us financially.
“Have you looked into the ACA?” our insurance provider asked.
We were both taken aback. At the risk of sounding ignorant or entitled (I was both), to me the ACA was for poor people, old people on fixed incomes—or sick people. We were healthy, hard-working and young(ish). Through nearly two decades of employment each, neither one of us had ever not worked but for a requisite week or two breather between jobs—we’d always paid into the system, not taken from it.
My girlfriend and I exchanged a glance and I said, “We’re not sure the ACA is what we’re looking for. We want the kind of premium insurance we were used to. We’ll pay for better coverage.”
She ran some numbers and showed us what the ACA could do. Turns out, it was the strongest offering of any plan and the cost was next to nothing. We felt both pangs of relief and guilt as we filled our our ACA (known here as Covered California) paperwork.
We justified it by saying this was a temporary solution and the chances of something happening over the next sixty-odd days of using it were minuscule. We decided to (gratefully) use Obamacare as a bridge and when things settled down and we were back to work, we’d get back to paying in our fair share.
Two weeks later, we received our new insurance cards in the mail. “It’s official,” I said, smiling. “We’re on the dole.” My girlfriend didn’t say anything but I got the look. I slipped quietly from the room as she inserted the new cards into her wallet. Later that afternoon at pick up, our daycare provider told us she had a couple kids out with the stomach flu, that was a Wednesday.
By Friday our son was showing those same symptoms. It persisted Saturday and Sunday. Monday morning, he was too sick to take in. My girlfriend laid next to his crib most of the night and into the morning. He was clutching his abdomen and abnormally pale. By early afternoon, he was in so much pain he couldn’t stand up.
She asked me if I could text my brother-in-law, a family practice physician, and explain the symptoms. I was reluctant to do so. During our first couple years as new parents, I had sent him oodles of questions (sometimes at ungodly hours) about our son’s condition, a rash, a cough, a bump, something stuck up his nose—I was hesitant to interrupt him during his work day as he dealt with his own patients.
Instead, I went down to check on them and he did not look good. The kid who was used to flying around the house like Superman eating and drinking everything in sight was definitely more than a little under the weather. I texted my brother-in-law with symptoms and he didn’t hesitate to write back.
“Get him to his doc, now,” he wrote. “If they stonewall you, describe the symptoms and tell them he needs to be seen TODAY.”
His urgent tone set off alarm bells, but I tried to remain calm. I told my girlfriend I was going to call his doc and I spent five minutes on the phone convincing the front desk that six weeks from Tuesday wasn’t going to cut it. She had an opening at three o’clock and could we be there? It was 2:40.
The pediatrician did not like what he saw but it wasn’t anything he could diagnose. He said it may be the stomach flu but he wanted to take precautions.
He called ahead to the emergency room to check us in. We drove to the ER and on the way discussed whether it was worth taking him into the hospital at all. It was around dinner time, everyone was hungry and our son was showing signs of perking up. Had we still been on the HSA or let our policy lapse for the weeks between jobs, we probably would’ve gotten something to eat and gone home to ride it out for another day.
These, I should point out, are the decisions parents are forced to make every day and when they don’t have insurance, are underinsured or are insecure about cost—they do what we almost did, they go home and wait it out.
We spent the evening in the ER. Our son got a full workup, vitals, blood, a CT scan and an ultrasound along with IV fluids. Whatever progress we had seen earlier was starting to diminish and he was becoming less responsive. The ER doc came back a few hours later and told us his white cell count was through the roof. She had the notion that his appendix burst, but the CT scan was inconclusive. Our local hospital didn’t have the resources in pediatrics to go much further, so she called around the state to see where we could get a bed.
She landed on Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, two hours south of where we lived.
“I ordered an ambulance, it will be here in ten minutes. Mom, you’ll go with your baby. Dad, you will follow.”
And so we did.
I phoned my sister in tears as we’d been texting updates. At that point it was almost midnight and if they could confirm his appendix had burst at Cottage, they’d likely take it out before morning—it had probably already been a few days since it ruptured.
I don’t remember the drive to the hospital. I do remember arriving in the ER at Cottage, my girlfriend laying next to my son, his IV still in and looking despondent, tired and sick. The hospital was getting a room ready for him and the pediatric surgeon had ordered yet another CT scan (the original didn’t get enough of his abdomen.) It was 4 a.m.
The sun rose and another day of tests ensued. His burst appendix was confirmed, one of the surgical residents described it like a bomb had gone off in his belly. He was given medication through his IV to stop the spread of infection. The pediatric surgeon said a burst appendix on someone so little and the mess that had ensued meant it was too risky to operate right away.
Instead, the strategy was to kill off the infection inside his tummy with aggressive rounds of antibiotics injected through something called a PiCC line, a small stent they implanted surgically the next day. The line stuck out of his arm on the inside of his right bicep.
The medication was to be injected 3x/day for about 45 minutes each dose. We would start it in the hospital while he was being monitored and if that went OK for a couple days we could take him home and finish the two-week cycle there. We were told that at any sign of a change in his health (fever, not eating etc.) we were immediately to come back to the hospital.
Turns out the medication did work, until he had a reaction to it at the end of the cycle (which ended us up back at Cottage for a few nights.) The line was eventually removed and we were to monitor him and give him oral antibiotics for the next few weeks. Again, any spike in temperature or noticeable change in demeanor meant back to the hospital.
So there we were (again) on New Year’s Day.
By the time our son had his appendix out, it was mid-February, three months to the day of it bursting. In that time, neither one of us had searched for a job. A new president was sworn in, one who was hell-bent on acting with the majority in the house and senate to take away our health care; white men who are trying to gather hundreds of billions in tax cuts for their corporate donor overlords attempting to convince the mass of the population that healthcare is only a right for the few of privilege.
I remember looking up at the CNN scroll in the waiting room as our son’s surgery took place and it was all about the first attempt of an Obamacare repeal. My girlfriend squeezed my hand as she fought back tears.
We were completely spent mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally.
But we were also lucky and blessed.
The surgery went well. Our surgeon, as it turns out, was one of the best in the country. The nurses were some of the most attentive and knowledgeable I had ever been around. They remembered our son’s name every time. They held his hand. They brought him toys. They made him smile. They made us smile.
While at Cottage we saw kids, infants, toddlers, pre-teens, with all kinds of ailments and conditions no parent ever wants to imagine. Our son’s small bout with a burst appendix was on the way-fortunate end of the spectrum. The parents there were all colors, all backgrounds and religions, from all parts of the state. Some had money, others had nothing. All were there for one reason, one cause, one little life.
When we congregated together in the kids’ play area, our children dragging their IVs behind them attempting to play kitchen in hospital gowns, we looked at one another and nodded and tried to smile through it, tried to give a bit of solace through eye contact.
Each of us, to a person, understood.
Nobody asked anyone to pray for their kid. It was something we all did. Sometimes, it was the only thing we could do.
Toward the end of our first stay, the woman in charge of accounts receivable pulled us aside. “Your son,” she said, “is covered. You are covered.”
It had been awhile since we’d had any good news, or any sleep for that matter. I caught my breath. “One hundred percent—like everything?”
“Everything,” she said. “Your job is to worry about getting your son healthy.”
My girlfriend I had to excuse ourselves to take a walk down the hallway and cry.
Today, as we come up on the year-anniversary of our job loss, we’re getting it back; back at work, back into routines, back to normal. One year later, and finally seeing daylight. Our family is able to function and be whole again, able to enjoy the luxury of worrying about the things people in a healthy society should worry about, how to contribute, how to grow, how to be generous and good, how to put in our fair our share so others can also have a chance when their luck isn’t so hot.
Our son once again is rambunctious and filled with dynamite. He is alive today and our family is intact because of the Affordable Care Act.
…It turns out we were saved by something we never thought we’d need. It turns out we were saved by something I was biased against. It turns out the one thing that was never going to happen to us… did.
Call your representative today and let them know that you will not stand for the destruction of the health of your nation and you will not let them turn their backs on our children.
Let them know it can happen to you, it can happen to them. It can happen to anyone.