Dying undocumented in the US
OAKLAND, California – It’s not easy to watch someone die, but that was the reality for Beatrice Sanchez, an undocumented Filipina immigrant, who watched her mother’s health spiral down for nearly a decade.
The decline seemed needless because Betty Balderama wasn’t sick with a rare incurable disease. She died of complications from diabetes, a common, chronic disease that Sanchez believes could have easily been managed had it been caught early.
But the problem was that her mother, like the rest of the family, was undocumented and uninsured. Seeking health care would mean having to divulge this and risk the possibility of deportation.
Balderama’s struggle with health issues has left an indelible mark on Sanchez, now a 25-year-old woman studying graphic design at Laney College and working for an Oakland-based nonprofit that advocates for immigrant rights.
“After seeing what my mother went through, I am convinced that no one – but no one – should have to live without health insurance,” Sanchez says.
Growing up, Sanchez had watched her mother do backbreaking work, sometimes as a domestic help and sometimes as a caregiver in local nursing homes to provide for her two children.
The work hours grew longer after Balderama and her husband, Carlos, separated when Sanchez was in middle school. Carlos, who had moved to Los Angeles, sent money to pay for food and rent for the sparsely furnished room the family rented in Oakland. The family slept on the floor because there were no beds.
Balderama often complained of feeling fatigued and dizzy, Sanchez recalls. Her mother didn’t know what was wrong with her and she didn’t try to find out for fear of revealing her status.
Whenever Balderama felt ill, she turned to her fail-safe: Benadryl. “It was our go-to medicine for colds, flu and even broken limbs,” Sanchez says.
Once in middle school, Sanchez remembers dislocating her shoulder and being in a lot of pain. The school nurse called her father and asked him to take Sanchez to the hospital. Instead, he pulled her into a deserted part of the schoolyard and manipulated her shoulder, gently pushing the bone back in place.
Sanchez remembers her mother was diagnosed with diabetes after finally enrolling in HealthPAC, Alameda County’s low-cost health program for its low-income residents, including the undocumented. At that point, Sanchez believes, the disease had progressed to an unmanageable level. Her mother began self-monitoring, using a diabetes home kit.
And she began missing work. “She got fired more than once,” Sanchez says.
But even then, Balderama continued drinking soda and eating fried chicken on an almost daily basis, paying dearly for her dietary indiscretions. “She knew those were not good for her, that her sugar level would go up, but she had no time to cook,” Sanchez said.
Frequent ER visits
Balderama’s life became a succession of dashes to the emergency room at Highland Hospital, often for diabetes-related complications, once to have a broken ankle operated on from a fall in the bathroom, and another time for injuries she sustained after being hit by a car while crossing the street.
Once, after being discharged after weeks in a diabetic coma at Highland Hospital, Balderama insisted on going back to her job. She said she just couldn’t afford to take time off from work. “I felt so helpless because I couldn’t do anything to make things easy for her,” Sanchez says.
Although Balderama was stoic about her illness, there were some nights when she lay crying out in pain. When the pain became unbearable, mother and daughter talked about ending it all. “My mom and I went back and forth about how pointless it was for us to live,” Sanchez said.
In September 2012, Balderama died in a cost-sharing nursing home in Oakland, where she had spent almost three years receiving care. Her once strong body had become emaciated. She was 55 years old.
In her apartment in Oakland, Sanchez still has a pile of bills from the nursing home, some of them unopened. Among them are letters from a collection agency that she has ignored.
A couple of weeks back, Sanchez became a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) beneficiary, which extends temporary renewable legal status to young people brought to the United States as children.
She is now determined to get health coverage for herself through Medi-Cal, the comprehensive health insurance program for low-income people known as Medicaid in the rest of the nation.
She’s also determined to continue pushing for California’s Health for All bill that failed last year but is going to be reintroduced by its author, Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, in January. The bill would extend health coverage to the state’s undocumented immigrants.
Depending on Benadryl for health problems is no way to live, Sanchez says.
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