After two separate cancer diagnoses, a "hidden" tumor, a 16 year recovery, and six hour drives for critical care, fighting for rural care access (and #MedicareForAll) is personal for me. Kristi's story is not so dissimilar to many other rural Northern Michigan cancer patients and it's one of the many reasons I'm running for Congress; to #TakeItHome for healthcare.
NEGAUNEE, Mich. — I never imagined I would utter the words, "I'm running for Congress," but after seeing my fellow neighbors and my loved-ones in Michigan left behind, it was time to do something.
Healthcare in rural America is in crisis. It has very real implications not on our communities' livelihoods, but individual lives. We live it every day. The fight for healthcare is personal to my family.
Sixteen years ago, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. She's been diagnosed twice since then. In order to get the life-saving treatment she needed, she had to travel over six hours to the University of Michigan medical center. To this day, we still have to make the trip for her yearly check-ups.
Kristi was diagnosed in 2006 with Papillary Cancer. During her surgery she had a complete thyroidectomy. The cancer also spread to her lymph nodes. With the size of the tumor and how it spread, they detected she had cancer for at least two years before a diagnosis.
She had to undergo radiation that kept her in complete isolation for one week so the amount of radiation omitted from her body wouldn't harm others.
"Four and a half years later, I was diagnosed again with cancer," says Kristi. "I had six month checkups, and during one my tumor markers had skyrocketed. The doctors in Marquette knew my cancer was back but they couldn’t locate its exact spot. They assumed it was in my lungs because of the type of cancer."
Like so many people without access to specialty care, to save her life she left Marquette to seek medical attention at UofM in Ann Arbor. They have a team of Endocrinology oncologists that only deal with her cancer.
The doctors met with her, held a tumor board, and determined they knew where her cancer was using Marquette’s imaging.
She had another surgery that lasted almost six hours. Kristi had a radical right neck dissection. The cancer spread to most of her lymph nodes and near her vocal cords, which was harrowing because she lost her voice for three months.
"I had a special breathing tube that monitored my vocal cord activity during the surgery to try and keep them safe," says Kristi. "The lymph nodes behind my neck were all aggressive cancer. It frightened me because this type of cancer has a 95% cure rate and rarely ever turns aggressive."
Kristi's oncologist was very concerned but luckily she was still in her 30s so age was on her side.
"Had I been 40, [my doctor] would have been very concerned," says Kristi. "I went through more extensive radiation which made me sterile. I already had both of my kids so I wasn’t too concerned, but it was a mental hit thinking about how much poison my body had consumed to make me sterile."
We still travel for checkups every year at UofM. 2020 will hopefully be our last annual checkup down state. If she's still cancer free she'll get to see her local doctor annually.
I could not imagine my life without Kristi, and I'm lucky to stand by her side. I'm filled with gratitude for her support and joining the campaign in our fight to make Northern Michigan better. Kristi radiates hope. Her strength and perseverance inspires me daily.
Despite the incredible efforts of overworked, understaffed and underappreciated hospital employees, access to reliable rural healthcare is abysmal. Affordability is one of the most inequitable challenges of our time. Too many Americans are uninsured and over half are underinsured. Healthcare - including mental healthcare - is a fundamental human right.
This is the crisis of our generation. Many good, hard-working families like mine simply don’t have the resources necessary to travel hundreds of miles to receive life-saving medical procedures.
It's one of the many reasons I'm running for Congress.
President Obama’s Affordable Care Act was a great first step to ensure more Americans get the care they need, but it was just the first step. We need to do more. I support a single-payer healthcare system.
Millions of “fly-over state” citizens — like those in Michigan’s 1st District — are counting on leaders to bring critical care home, and a for-profit system just doesn't cut it. Because of systemic shortfalls, diagnoses are missed and referrals to specialists are unavailable locally. For ten years, my wife has been under the care of a UofM specialist.
Like so many, our patience is running dry. We need change. We need momentum. We need progress.