“Way Past Robitussin”: On Not Having Health Insurance

FuckJerry meme making fun of affordable healthcare

A million years ago I worked at Costco as a seasonal worker. I met a varied cast of characters:

  • A guy named Louie who moved to California from Brooklyn, to where he would never return because he got shot at “too many fucking times” – this he said to me with his hands in the shape of a gun. (I am certain Louie was not from Park Slope).
  • A widow in her fifties who needed to go back to work after her husband passed away from cancer. I’ve forgotten her name but I used to fold baby clothes with her. She smiled and cooed fondly each time she came across a cute onesie “Isn’t this just precious?” and made notes to buy certain things for her daughter and son. I wondered why her children were okay with their mother working the late shift at Costco.
  • An angry bald guy with broken teeth who took overly long breaks to smoke and who dressed like a garage mechanic. I’ve forgotten his name too, but remember clearly his openly wicked smile and dirty fingernails. He was the only guy I made a point to avoid.

Everyone came to Costco for various reasons: they needed more money around the holidays, they got paid time and a half on Sundays and holidays and, for a select few, they exclusively needed the health coverage.

There was another guy, a short, skinny sandy blonde-haired geeky type with glasses and a limp. Well, not just a limp. He left leg was almost completely useless, held together by what few muscles were left beneath the skin. Or at least could be discerned from the baggy fabric of his jeans. The other leg was fine and probably, by then, stronger than it otherwise would have been.

He was handsome in a Michael J. Fox kind of way, and not least because he reminded me of the actor when he walked, in a laborious, off balanced way that made him sway from left to right. His eyes were bright and he worked quietly, not engaging much with the other workers, most of whom did not have college degrees.

One evening I worked closing with him, restocking the underwear, socks and pajamas section. He seemed the type to prefer working after the store had closed.

We talked a bit about life outside of Costco. We both worked between 15-30 hours a week which meant we could still do other things like attend community college, which I was doing at the time, and be a court-reporter, which he was.

“Wow,” I said, “That sounds like a full-time job.”

“It is my full time job,” he said.

“It doesn’t pay well?”

I had even less of a filter then than I do now, but the man just shrugged and answered matter-of-factly.

“No, it does. I make $120 an hour.” 

I paused to stare at him with a three-pack of Calvin Kleins in my hand. If he was getting paid the same as I was, he was making $10 an hour at Costco. $15 on Sundays, which to me at the time (and actually now too, since I’m unemployed).


“It’s freelance so I didn’t have great health insurance, and Costco does.”

Costco, as it turned out, offered health insurance even to part-time workers who worked past 450 hours or 90 days, whichever comes first.

My eyes automatically went to his leg.

“Is it because of your leg?”

He nodded, probably used to it, or perhaps not used to someone asking so outright. But he told me anyway.

No, he hadn’t been born this way, he’d just been delivered a stroke of extreme bad luck. He had had a small cut on his left thigh and gone to use a public restroom. He sat down. A day later the area around the cut began to throb. It had become infected. A few days after that, excruciating pain. He couldn’t walk. Finally a friend took him to the hospital, where he discovered he’d contracted a flesh-eating virus.

My face contorted into a horrified expression, but he only shrugged.

By the time the doctors figured out what was going on, the virus had eaten away most of the muscles in his left leg.

I was still clutching the box of underwear when he finished telling me the story.

“This was like last year,” he said.

I’m not sure what I said after that, but probably something lame like, “Well at least it was just one leg.”

But I do remember him saying, as emphatically as could a man whose job was to transcribe emphatic words admitting or denying guilt, that Costco had damn good health coverage and it was really, to him, a Godsend that he could work here part-time, keep his day job, and get great health benefits all the same.

And I also remember thinking how important it was to get a good job with excellent health coverage after graduation.

I thought about that guy today. Limpy Left Leg from Costco.

I’ve been sick for the past two months and beginning this month, I don’t have health insurance. My Medicaid coverage doesn’t begin until January, but I wasn’t too worried about it before. I had had a cold, which seemed to clear up except for a lingering cough, and then another cold struck again, right before we went to DC for Thanksgiving.

The week of Thanksgiving, I avoided wine (even the two bottles of rosé Tom’s mom got for me) and copious amounts of fat and sugar, until of course the day of (and the days after thanks to addictive leftovers). By the time we left, I felt somewhat recovered, but the cough remained.

This morning, I woke up and coughed the way I’ve now become accustomed to in the morning, an awful hacking sound Tom probably now associates with me. I hacked out the phlegm and sputum- two foreign sounding substances that seem to come out only during the night – into the sink and drew one more deep breath to start the morning when a sudden sharp pain hit me in the left rib cage, below the breast.

“Hm,” I thought, but washed my face, stretched, and didn’t think more of it.

Except the pain was now a feature of the cough and by mid afternoon it had grown and become so sharp that I feared something was seriously wrong. Tuberculosis? Pneumonia?

“Probably Bronchitis,” Tom said. Nothing to do but wait it out.

He’s probably right. But the worst part is not being able to see a doctor to make sure. I looked into the options for people without health insurance – something called a “sliding scale” – that were cheaper but not by much. The best option I could find was a $150 doctor’s visit that didn’t include the myriad of tests I’d probably need to figure out what is causing my chest pain, each one over $150.

So I went on Google, which is free and delivered via the Internet, which is paid by Tom. I’ve gone through some forums and read answers written by “real doctors” and have concluded that my affliction is bruised ribs as a result of coughing too much. At least for my peace of mind that’s what I’m going with.

Chris Rock says it best:

5 thoughts on ““Way Past Robitussin”: On Not Having Health Insurance

  1. If you do go to the $150 place they can at least listen to your breath sounds and determine if it’s clear or not (and likely is, if viral) and you won’t need a chest xray to further determine. If they have concerns they often do a z-pack (3d antibiotics, very cheap) without an xray

  2. Sorry to hear your situation. But Why can’t Tom add you to his insurance? You should be able to qualify as a domestic partner, no?

  3. This is awful, Betty. Nilis are replying with info from Lili’s recent experience with similar symptoms.

    Sent from my iPad


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