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What it’s like to grow up without health insurance in America

I grew up low-income watching my dad be exploited as an undocumented worker.

Then he, my determined, gritty, and hardworking AF dad, finally got his green card and became a real estate agent.

For a while we had Medi-Cal (health insurance for low-income folks), but that didn’t last long. As soon as he barely crossed the threshold for being qualified for Medi-Cal, we were out of options. Premiums were too expensive and my dad’s preexisting condition limited access.

So I didn’t have health insurance all throughout high school.

Let me tell you what that was like.

We sought out doctors that primarily treated patients without health insurance, usually folks of color, usually undocumented folks.

Our go-to was a Vietnamese doctor who operated out of a small “office” in near the Mexican border in San Diego. It was about an hour away from where we lived. The first thing I always recall about the place is the stench. This pseudo clinic was located next to a run-down butcher shop and it always reeked of blood and spoiled meat as soon as we pulled into the parking lot. I would plug my nose every time and tell myself not to vomit.

There would always be a line. The line started forming at 4am — the doctor would get in around 9am, but since they only take walk-ins, patients were seen on a first-come-first-serve basis. My dad would wake me up around 4:30am, so we could get in line to be seen before he had to go to back to work. As soon as we arrived, we would write our name down on a piece of paper with multiple rows already filled out by other ill patients. The beauty about this place was that that’s about all the “paperwork” we ever needed to complete. They never asked for any documents — no insurance card, ID, credit card. Nothing.

Even our 5:30am arrival would have us waiting 3–4 hours before we could be seen by the doctor. We were usually the only Asians in line. Almost everyone there was Latnix and every staff spoke fluent Spanish. I was always self-conscious getting out of the car and having everyone stare at me, somehow feeling guilty that I was taking up an undeserved spot, taking up precious resources from more marginalized folks.

There were only a few indoor seats in the “reception” area of the clinic, which was composed of two small rooms, a hall way that could fit maximum 3 people, a small bathroom, and a magical cabinet filled with different drugs and syringes. So my dad and I would stand outside, wait for our turn, or sit in his car.

The visit always cost $20 flat, then another $20 if you received a shot. Cash only.

The doctor was always generous with his shots — I didn’t know what the hell he was injecting in me, but I always ended up getting a shot. Terrible flu, sprained ankle, ear infection… there always seemed to be a shot for every occasion. At first I resisted and asked too many questions the doctor didn’t care to answer. “What is this shot for? What is it? Should I really be getting a shot on my ankle?!” He was a sweet man, but he didn’t have time to coddle my sheltered ass. I also didn’t feel like I had the right to ask or receive full information. I had to either silence my suspicion and worries and take the damn meds, or suffer indefinitely without any other treatment options. So yes, I got a shot every time. After the shot followed a prescription, or sometimes he would just hand me a bottle of pills from the magic cabinet.

Truth be told, I never found out if it was indeed a legitimate clinic — maybe I never wanted to.

Legal or not, this doctor saved me in high school. He saved my dad. My dad, like most Korean fathers, was never an emotive man. But whenever I was sick, like really sick, he couldn’t hide his desperation. And the guilt. Oh the guilt. For not being able to provide access to quality care and prompt treatment. For having to wake me up at 4 o’clock in the morning to drive an hour to a stinky “doctor’s office.” Seeing his own daughter suffer and feeling absolutely, devastatingly helpless — I don’t wish that on anyone.

Besides this last resort option we had for when my sister and I were sick, I depended heavily on Planned Parenthood for all things a sexually active teenage girl may need (sorry mom and dad): birth control, STI screening, UTI / yeast infection treatment, pap smear, mammogram, pregnancy test (oh the paranoia days!)… you name it they provided it (and still do). Getting an appointment right away was always near impossible, so I would always wait 2–3 hours to be seen as a walk-in. But I was never turned away.

I was always jealous of my friends who talked about their “primary care physician” — it sounded like such luxury to have someone who understands your holistic health needs, equipped with your medical history and treatment options.

My days of being uninsured ended when I began college. When I got accepted into UC Berkeley, I signed up for the Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP) but I was worried about paying for it. I was making minimum wage working a part-time job, something I had started doing when I turned 14 to help lessen the burden on my dad. The student health insurance cost $625, I think it was, per semester.

I had shared my concern off-handedly with my high school counselor, Mrs. Morton, who managed the student advocacy program at my high school. She had been my biggest advocate and champion, rooting me on to go to college and to change the world. She thought I would one day run the world. She facilitated the underground support group for LGBTQ students which I was a part of, most of whom were also low-income and struggling in school. Mrs. Morton and the support group played a huge role in helping me get through high school without losing my shit. Most students didn’t know its existence and most of my friends didn’t know I was a part of this group. I was a model student: straight As, AP classes, student government, blahblah… To Mrs. Morton, I was an unusual profile among more troubled students she typically supported. I was like a daughter to her and she was always proud of me. Before school ended, she handed me check for $625. She told me I needed it and that I deserved it. We cried. I will forever remember her and how much that check meant to me.

So I signed up for SHIP. I felt safe.

While at Cal, I had a major sickness one night where I had to go the Emergency Room. I still remember that night — I kept telling the nurse I was going to die and she looked at me stoically and said, “you’re not. going. to. die.” and gave me a morphine shot to calm me down. Then came the bill — a whopping $20,000 for a night in the ER. I was in major panic. I hadn’t realized the ER trip wouldn’t be covered by my student insurance. Luckily, after many desperate phone calls and paperwork, I was able to apply for financial assistance and got the bill shaved down to a much more reasonable amount. It was a rather obscure process that I would not have found out without much pestering and research.

Since graduating from school, I’ve been lucky enough to have jobs that provided full health insurance coverage. I appreciate it every single day. Because I know what it’s like to feel vulnerable and exposed, being fearful of insurmountable debt that could cripple your entire life.

But the fear still gets me, it’s so deeply rooted in me from my young adulthood and I can’t really shake it off.

A couple of years ago, I dislocated my elbow after I fell during a run with my co-workers. Immediately after the fall I knew something was very wrong with my arm. People called 911 and I was taken to a nearby hospital. My then CEO was with me, holding my injured arm in a splinter on the ambulance. I was in a shit ton of pain, but I was mostly worried about what this incident could do to my bank account. I remember I kept asking him about our insurance — I was deathly afraid of incurring tens of thousands dollars of medical bill. He probably didn’t realize why I was so paranoid, but he managed to calm me down by letting me know everything will be okay.

When the Affordable Care Act finally passed, I was ecstatic — not for me, but for my dad. He can finally go see a doctor with an appointment. Get preventative care. Get a damn physical! ACA by no means is perfect — but it helps millions of people like my dad and young people that I once was.

But some people seem to disagree. With the upcoming Orange Stain Administration, people’s livelihoods, in addition to the very existence of our democracy, is under attack. And shit’s beginning to unravel with the proposed repealing of the ACA. We are on the brink of repeating my youth days all over for millions of folks: youth living in fear, parents in guilt, and too many without the basic human right (not privilege) to be healthy.

Our health is the very foundation that enables us to reach our potential — and we have to fight for it to become a right, not a privilege. So I urge you, friends and friends of friends, strangers, doubters… whoever you are, to realize that millions’ livelihoods are at risk, and to do something about it: go to a protest, call your reps, donate to Planned Parenthood… there are options. Google it.

My relationship with the medical and insurance world will always have an undercurrent of fear, suspicion, and helplessness. I never take for granted being healthy, and my ability to access treatment and information with dignity. And I will always advocate for universal and affordable health care, because my political stance is a deeply personal one.