By Karen Marshall
My mother had just gone through several months of cancer treatment when a record-breaking hurricane season hit the Gulf Coast. As we heard stories of rescue and tragedy, she told me she understood how the survivors felt. She had never experienced a hurricane, but she had lived with cancer. She knew how it felt to live in an ongoing state of emergency.
When the unexpected happens, we adjust the way we live until life feels normal again. It may take a few days or weeks. If a serious illness is involved, it may take several months or years. When the winds settle, sometimes life has changed forever. We can’t plan for everything. We can only do our best to prepare.
This is especially true when it comes to expenses related to serious illnesses. You may prepare for the unexpected by saving for a rainy day or buying insurance. Those are smart moves, but it’s still hard to plan for every cost.
My mom’s cancer was very aggressive. So was her treatment. She had to stop working as soon as she was diagnosed. She had long-term disability insurance to replace part of her income while she couldn’t work. Fortunately, her health insurance covered most of her medical expenses.
We still spent thousands of dollars on related, out-of-pocket expenses within a few months of her diagnosis.
Travel and housing were big expenses. My mother had to travel hours from home to see her doctors. A single appointment usually meant leaving home early and getting back late. The distance was too far for her to travel for almost daily radiation treatments.
The medical center provided cheap, temporary housing for families like ours, but there were only a few units and no vacancies. My parents ended up moving into a nearby extended stay hotel during radiation treatment. They usually ate from their garden during the summer. But that summer, they paid for food and incidentals in a city miles from home and with a much higher cost of living.
Meanwhile, they lost income. My dad was a self-employed logger. He couldn’t work while they were away. No work meant no income.
My mom ran out of paid sick and vacation days and had to take unpaid leave from work. For a few months, her disability insurance payment was their main support.
But they managed.
When they were home, my dad tried to work as much as possible until my mom’s next appointment. She was too weak to care for herself and the household. When family and friends couldn’t volunteer, my dad paid someone to help at home and run errands.
There was always some unexpected expense.
Almost as soon as her treatments ended, my mom’s employer let her go because she had run out of leave. When her job ended, so did her employer’s contribution to her health insurance premium. She had to pay the entire premium out of her own pocket to keep coverage her treatments and medicine. Her new health insurance payment ate into most of her disability income.
As my mom’s health continued to fade, my dad quietly worried about being able to keep her comfortable in her last days. He realized long before everyone else, except maybe my mom, that she would not get better.
As his heart broke, bills piled in every day. The health insurance company even started calling us to complain about the cost of pain medicine prescribed by the doctor. My dad was under a huge amount of pressure.
Family helped with expenses. My parents also used their modest savings to pay down debt that built up during my mom’s illness. I moved in to help care for both of them. Fortunately, they never had to worry about losing their home like many families in similar situations. My mom never had to go without medicine.
Still, the situation was stressful. My father was raised during the Depression. He was taught to work hard without complaints. I’m sure he never told us just how tight money was.
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