Along with the body pain, migraines and vomiting, Belinda suffered a series of injuries. A shelf fell on her during a move, she took a tumble down a flight of stairs. A mugger stabbed her with a screwdriver. She became more dependent on painkillers. She had several lapses of consciousness. Jonathan, who lived in her building, would find Belinda on the floor. Gingerly, he'd carry her to the couch. She collapsed in front of her friends a few times too. Other times she just spaced out. Belinda did not know what caused the episodes. She thought it might be Neurontin, but when she stopped taking it the episodes continued. It might have been the Soma, a muscle relaxant Belinda took for several years. Withdrawal from Soma causes seizures. No one knows for sure.
The episodes worried Belinda enough to mention them to many doctors in the emergency room. She was a frequent visitor to these antiseptic-scented last resorts for the sick. For those without insurance, an emergency room is the only place that can't turn a sick patient away. Federal law requires a hospital to screen and stabilize any patient who presents in its emergency room, regardless of her ability to pay. That's not to say a poor patient isn't charged. Hospitals depend on fees for survival. Hospitals bill uninsured patients at higher rates than insured patients for the same services. They often pursue the uninsured relentlessly, even if most can't pay. Belinda couldn't pay. Her bills piled high. Her credit nosedived. Collectors called so often she ditched her answering machine.
Belinda tried for years to get Medi-Cal - the state's insurance for people of meager means. But California has one of the highest rates of uninsured in the nation - a situation worsening with each state budget. With shrinking resources, the state keeps as many people off of Medi-Cal as possible. Being poor -- even very poor -- is not enough to qualify. Medi-Cal, like all state-funded insurance, is a social welfare program intended to help on the "deserving poor," e.g. kids and their caregiver relatives, pregnant women, or the elderly, blind and otherwise disabled. Single adults under 65 who are not disabled are ineligible.
If Belinda qualified for disability, she would qualify for Medi-Cal. Easier said than done. A claimant must have a medical condition, expected to last more than a year, that interferes with her ability to perform any type of work. The Social Security administration rejects most first-time applications.
Between 2004 and 2006, Dr. Mildred S. Wenger, a physician at Hollywood Health Center, tried to help. "It has become very difficult [to assist you] because you are having financial problems due to the fact that you have multiple medical problems," Wenger wrote to Belinda in 2004. "I believe that you would be much better off if you were involved in the county healthcare system." That November, Wenger wrote another letter, addressed "To Whom it May Concern," recommending placing Belinda on "total temporary disability." Wenger wrote: "She is sick for long periods of time. Her chronic respiratory illness in conjunction with migraine headaches is disabling her." Wenger wrote another letter in 2006: "Over the past four years she has been in and out of many hospitals. Some of her diagnoses have included stab wounds, pneumonia, bronchitis, esophageal tear, lumbar sacral sprain and fibromyalgia."
Wenger's letters included just a partial list of diagnoses Belinda would have by the end of her life. The list included ulcers, an ovarian cyst, sciatica, tendonitis in her buttock, mononucleosis, septicemia (a life-threatening infection) and MRSA (a staph infection sometimes caught in hospitals). Belinda didn't feel good, for plenty of physical reasons. But doctors saw emotional issues too - mood swings, crying and anger. Well, she'd been through a lot, Sharon said. "You're talking about a young woman who has watched her father go from a healthy man to one who was hobbling around on a cane because of a drunk driver." Mom also lost her job as a teacher when her eyes went bad. Dad then died a slow painful death from cancer. And her longtime love married and impregnated another woman without telling her.