Hannah Drake

My Pre-Existing Condition

CommentaryHannah Drake

Earlier this week, Jimmy Kimmel fought back tears as he told the story of his new son's birth and subsequent open heart surgery during his opening monologue on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. He tearfully thanked the nurse who discovered his heart murmur just hours after he was born, the doctor who repaired the first of two defects, and everyone else in between. I saw the story early on Tuesday morning, first as a share from a Facebook friend. Then it started popping up everywhere. I read an article about the criticism it had received on Wednesday afternoon. Politicians, journalists, and regular Twitter trolls accused Kimmel of making an inappropriate political play with a sob story about his son. I finally watched the video this morning, fighting back my own tears. I guess my question is, what's wrong with what Kimmel said? For the first time in my life, I had a real visualization of what my parents must have experienced almost 27 years ago.

I was born in August of 1990, seemingly healthy and apparently very happy. A few days later, my primary care physician discovered a heart murmur, which lead to a discovery of one of two congenial heart defects, which lead to my first heart surgery at just eleven days old. Doctors at Children's Hospital repaired the coarctation of my aorta. Don't worry, I had to confirm the phrase from a note on my phone and Google search the layman's terms. I had a hard time keeping up with the cardiology jargon back then.

Coarctation of the aorta is a narrowing of the aorta, which delivers oxygen-rich blood to your body. When this occurs, your heart must pump harder to force blood through the narrow part of your aorta.

They went in through my back and side, so it's not technically open heart surgery, but a big undertaking for such a little one nonetheless. The surgery left me with a scar along my left shoulder blade, reaching around my side, and now marking just above my "grace" tattoo.*

By December of 1990, before I was even five months old, I did have open heart surgery to repair the second congenial heart defect, atrial septal defect, or ASD as it's known when we're chatting about it in my regularly scheduling cardiology check ups. What's that you ask? 

A "hole" in the wall that separates the top two chambers of the heart. This defect allows oxygen-rich blood to leak into the oxygen-poor blood chambers in the heart. ASD is a defect in the septum between the heart's two upper chambers (atria). The septum is a wall that separates the heart's left and right sides.

Once again, it was repaired by amazing surgeons at Children's Hospital. That scar reaches from my collar bone nearly to my belly button. Turns out those things stretch over almost three decades.

Since then, I've had many aforementioned regularly scheduled check ups at Children's Hospital through my 18th birthday and then at the University of Colorado Medical Campus. They've become few and far between, but the last one also gave me my first taste of a medical insurance nightmare. We rushed to get in with my cardiologist one last time before my 26th birthday when my insurance changed. The EKG showed a leak in my valve that they wanted to look at more closely. She suggested an MRI and I scheduled it for two days before my 26th birthday convinced that you don't take a gamble with your heart. After that the bill came to my address and my parents' insurance didn't want to cover it because my employer's insurance started on the 1st, days before my birthday. That was August and I just got my parents' insurance to pay the $5,000 bill at the end of last month, but that took a lot of frustrating phone calls.

27 years ago, my family--a family of six--was a single income family. My dad was just starting out in private practice as an attorney after the firm where he had been a partner broke up. I was staying in a hospital over an hour away from home. My mom had a room at Ronald McDonald House for a few bucks a night because it was the 90's. (I was going to say she was sleeping there, but I wonder how much sleep she actually got during my hospital stays?) Needless to say, we weren't the Kimmels. No. We were the people he was pleading for at the end of his monologue. The people who have to consider if they can afford to save their child's life.

So here I am, a few months shy of 27, typing away on my MacBook in a cafe, sipping an iced chai and watching the cars go by outside. Like most Americans, I'm only vaguely aware of how blessed I am until I see a quote on Instagram that really hits home and makes me say "oh shit, I am hashtag blessed". But in reality, I've voted in 3 elections. I can post my political and religious beliefs on Facebook and the worst that happens is I might lose a few friends who land on the other side of the spectrum. Because I helped elect Barack Obama to the White House when I was 18, I had my parents' health insurance for another 8 years, I wouldn't hit a lifetime maximum, and I couldn't be discriminated against for a pre-existing condition. Did you Google congenial? It means I was born with it. I'm a random heart defect statistic. It's nothing about my environment either in or out of the womb. My family didn't draw my name out of a hat and pick me for Biggest Hospital Bill of 1990. We didn't choose this. No one chooses this. Today, they chose not to help us.

Was it a pathetical political play on Jimmy Kimmel's part? I don't think so. But I do think it's a sick and twisted political game they're playing in Washington. The politicians celebrating in the Rose Garden this afternoon don't care about me. They don't care about my family. They don't care about anyone like us. They care about Big Money. They see us as anonymous statistical figures and dollar signs. Not people with real beating hearts that need repairs.

*I had "grace" tattooed below my first scar just over two years ago. My favorite song "The Unwinding Cable Car" by Anberlin says "grace marks your heart". And my name means grace in Hebrew.