Source: Carletta Girma
In author Nicole Chung’s new memoir, “A Living Remedy,” she tells the story of how both her parents died within the span of two years. It was all the more painful because his mother and father could not afford the medical treatment they needed.
Chung blames the country’s failing health system, at least in part, for the fact that his father died at 67 and his mother at 68. By the time his father finally sought help at a low-cost health clinic, a doctor told him that his kidneys had lost over 90% of their function. “It’s still hard for me not to view my father’s death as some kind of negligent homicide, facilitated and accelerated by the state’s failure to fulfill its most basic responsibilities to him and to ‘others like him,’ Chung wrote.
She also recounts how her parents’ illnesses could never be dealt with and mourned for what they meant alone; they always trigger financial setbacks and scares too. As her parents’ health deteriorates, Chung tries to become a writer and take care of her two daughters, but these efforts are often mixed with frustration that she can’t do more to help the people who have her. high. She writes of the “deep guilt of those who leave hardship behind, but are unable to bring someone else with them”.
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Chung’s story is likely to resonate with many. In 2022, a record share of Americans (38%) said they or a family member had delayed medical treatment because of cost, according to a Gallup poll.
I spoke with Chung about his grief and the state of health care in the United States. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Annie Nova: Your parents lived through a lot of precariousness. I’m curious, how well did you understand as a child what was happening to them?
Nicole Chung: It’s difficult because, when you’re a child, you obviously don’t know about the financial discussions between your parents. It would not have been appropriate for them to impose this on me at that age. But at the same time, definitely by the end of elementary school, I had gotten used to times when they were unemployed, and I could really see the tension in their faces.
AN: The scenes of your father running different pizzerias as he gets older are really upsetting because he is often abused. Was retirement something they ever talked about? Or did they just know they couldn’t stop working?
CN: It was really hard to plan for the future, especially because my parents didn’t know when someone might lose their job or when someone would get sick. There wasn’t even an acknowledgment that my father couldn’t work forever in the service industry.
AN: So your mother and father, because of money worries, delayed the visit to the doctor. How did this worsen their conditions?
CN: By the time my dad finally walked into a community health clinic and got the tests and care he needed, they said, “We should have seen you a year ago. Your kidneys have lost over 90% of their function. He knew he was getting sicker and sicker, but my parents just couldn’t afford the intensive care he needed.
AN: And with your mother?
CN: With my mother, it’s a little more difficult to define. I write in the book about his battle with cancer. At that time, she was on Social Security and Disability, so she had adequate medical care. But when I was in high school, there was a period when we were uninsured, and she had health issues. I ended up having to drive her to the hospital one night, and it turned out she had endometriosis. She hadn’t seen a doctor for months. She never said to me, “I didn’t go because we didn’t have insurance”, but the fact is that she didn’t. And that was partly because things had gotten so bad that the doctors weren’t able to remove it all, and that’s where his cancer developed many years later, and what caused him finally killed.
AN: This all happened relatively recently. Was it hard to write about it so early?
CN: After my father died, I spent months trying to figure out why I was so angry. Why wasn’t I just sad? Why was I so angry? And it’s the injustice of how he died, the fact that he died younger than he probably should or needed, because of years of precariousness and a lack of access to health care. It was suddenly very important to talk about it.
AN: Going to the community health clinic was such a turning point for your father. I got the sense that you think the whole health care system should be more like these clinics.
CN: I think it was difficult for my mother to accept that they had to go to a free clinic. And, of course, that didn’t save him. But it prolonged his life. He was diagnosed with kidney failure and was on dialysis. He was approved for disability. There was all kinds of assistance, even a medical shuttle to take her to her appointments. So that visit to the clinic unlocked all of those other services and supports. This is often not the case with the way health care works in this country. Instead, it is difficult to access and very expensive.
AN: As you became more comfortable financially, did your parents ask you for help?
CN: I offered my parents what I could, but they were really hesitant to ask for anything because of where I was in my career and because I had two young children. They knew I didn’t have a lot of money. And it was kind of devastating to realize that they weren’t asking because they had no expectations. And then, when my mother visited me, she secretly left money. I would meet him after they left. It was like she was trying to give back everything I gave them.
AN: What impact do you hope your book will have on the health care conversation in the United States?
CN: I wanted to write this book, partly because I wanted to write about my grief. And it was really important to say that so many people’s grief experiences are influenced by things like what my family went through. Most people who get sick and die in this country are not rich, because most people in this country are not rich. These things are going to keep happening to so many of us at some point. How do we want to meet them as a society? One of the biggest questions running through the book is, “How do we want to take care of each other?”