Healthcare, Dialysis and Being Undocumented: A Choice of Life & Death

Healthcare, Dialysis and Being Undocumented: A Choice of Life & Death

A choice of life and death. A dialysis machine saves millions of lives. And, for many, the opportunity to get treatment is nonexistence. That lack of opportunity forces one to make the choice of life and death. Hardship, stress and heartache becomes an encompassing cocoon. Here is a heartbreaking reality.

The Beginning of the Bad

The year is 2011. You are a migrant from St. Vincent and the Grenadines who visited the United States for a wedding. You went through the necessary procedure for obtaining a visa in your homeland to which you successfully obtained. Suddenly, you become ill within two days of your stay here. You are rushed to the closest hospital where you receive life-altering news.

A doctor relays to you that your kidneys are failing. You become numb as the final words leave the doctor’s mouth because you had not the slightest inkling of any major health issue going on in your own body—much less an issue with one of your major organs. Within three days of hearing the news, you begin the life-long process of dialysis to save your body every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for three and a half hours. Your diet has to undergo changes and you will no longer be able to drink more than 32 fluid ounces in a day—even when it is a blistering hot day and you want to quench yourself with water.

Nothing will ever be the same.

One Woman’s Story

Having now read the above, how would you feel? That is the exact story of one woman I spoke to. Let us call her Sarah Harris, in an effort to conceal her identity. Her story is not only compelling on an individual level but speaks to the times we are living in as immigration, undocumented individuals and xenophobia are daily headlines. As she recounts the details of her poor health and even worse, the lack of access to proper healthcare in her home country—preventing her from living a wholesome life as a wife and mom—it speaks volumes to the progress we need to make in this world.

On staying in America, Harris conveys that “it was a choice of life and death”. She had to decide promptly for the sake of her health seeing as her kidneys were failing. But it was not a painless task as her husband and three children are back home in their island nation. What the Caribbean country offers is an idyllic landscape but sadly, their healthcare system is lacking. Knowing this, Harris made the decision to stay in the United States since late 2011 until today to receive the dire healthcare she needed.

Harris considered herself a relatively healthy person. She only recalls having a health scare back home when she was running a race to amuse the children at her preschool’s activity day. Within a short time of that run, her body was on the floor.

Doctors at a St. Vincent and Grenadines’ hospital inform her she has very high blood pressure, to which they assume she was on medication for. Hearing this news for the first time, Harris was not on any blood pressure medications but did have occasional headaches which the doctors saw as a viable symptom of high blood pressure.

They prescribed her high blood pressure pills which she was taking for three years prior to coming to the United States. She saw her high blood pressure levels go down.

Once in the United States, doctors here filled her in—allowing her to finally put together the pieces of her health story.

What the doctors in St. Vincent and the Grenadines failed to do was identify the underlying cause of her high blood pressure. So while she was medicating it for three years under the assumption that she was getting healthier, her kidneys were decaying day by day.

Luckily, she found herself in a state that is helpful to undocumented individuals. New York offers more health insurance options to immigrants than many other states do, according to NYC.gov. One such program is medicaid, which Harris was able to partake in through help found at her hospital.

Providing her passport as initial identification and receiving care in the hospital, they set her up with a social worker. From there, her social worker asked for a few other documents such as a proof of address and she received medicaid as well as other types of necessary assistance.

She still has to make a co-pay each visit but she weighs her options and knows paying a small fee for extensive healthcare in the United States still beats not receiving any back home due to their absence of widespread dialysis centers or the unaffordable costs associated with the ones that have since opened during Harris’ time in New York.

When available, Harris usually works several jobs that do not require her documents—just to have the cash on hand to pay for her copayment, meals and rent. But of course anyone taking dialysis already knows that toiling your body after a session of having your blood purified for hours is not an easy feat. Harris recounts having to go to hospital right after her dialysis sessions because she would run a temperature or experience some other problem related to the dialysis treatment.

At times, Harris says she has cramps that occur at the time of treatment or during the night where they make her feel as if she is “naturally passing out,” and knocks the walls of her room for assistance from her roommate.

Before receiving medicaid, Harris tried reaching out to several programs, some even not-for-profit. She reached a roadblock in receiving any help from them when they would ask for her social security number. As an undocumented individual, this is the last thing you want to hear.

Presently, Sarah is struggling with a decision—one she must make soon. Should she go back home to be with her family or stay here in the United States to receive care? That battle ultimately has an answer which Harris seems to have no second thought about. Her main challenge has always been being away from her family and for the last seven years, she has been tackling just that.

She yearns for their support during her long days after dialysis as her energy levels drop and she has to rely instead on the friendship of her roommate. This is the same roommate who would step in and act as a caregiver when Sarah Harris became weak in her rented room.

Today and Tomorrow

Back in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, they recently opened their first public dialysis center this year. Prices per treatment are set to approximately US $93 or 250 Eastern Caribbean dollars. Before that, a Canadian registered nurse opened a private dialysis center that has prices topped at 500 Eastern Caribbean dollars for treatment. In US dollars today, this is roughly $185—almost twice the amount the government clinic is charging. None of this includes the price of the additional medication Harris, and others like her, would need to buy to cater to their full health.

So there you have it—a woman chooses to risk her health for the love of her family all because the United States’ immigration policies are unfair and disallow her from living a life complete with all the normalities she dreams of. When asked what her ideal life would look like, she explains that it would be staying in the United States to acquire the quality healthcare offered here but with one inclusion—her family to stay in the state’s with her.

Now she must succumb to leaving the care team that aided her for the last several years here to spend her last remaining years with her family back home. She will have to start life over complete with a job to pay for the dialysis, which may not be as prime as it is here in the United States.

The immigration laws set forth in our country are inhumane when you take into consideration a situation like Harris’ and countless others just like it.

Yet, who do we point a finger to for changes to these unjust laws?

The United States government, the St. Vincent and Grenadines’ government, or should pressure be applied worldwide to see the humane, moral, and just policies we want to see in society?

We need laws that realize we are human beings first before we are a citizen of any land and the betterment of our health should be a global effort.

Harris is ultimately positive as she expresses that she is fortunate to receive treatment in America and instead of going a route of complaining, she is thankful for her situation and being alive. As Harris puts it, she had to make some “rough choices,” because her country did not have the access to healthcare she so needed.

Harris says she knows how hard it is being an undocumented entity in this country. Her advice to fellow undocumented individuals in the same boat as her is to “keep focus and regardless to who is the president and who is not, I believe God is in control of everything.”

Dana Mathura is a senior at Baruch College majoring in Communication Studies and minoring in Journalism, class of Spring 2019. Dana has written for the online publication Odyssey and is currently a News and Feature Writer for Caribbean American Weekly, as well as Workers World Today. Her work has been published both in print and online. Fascinated with journalism from a young age, she is an aspiring Broadcast News Analyst, hoping one day to write her own memoir. Dana’s interests include fashion, photography and film.

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