Growing Up Without Health Insurance

I grew up without health care. My parents did not have money for health insurance, and with their strong opposition to accepting special help from the government, we simply went without health care even during times when we qualified for State programs. My father would tell us children that we believed in “assurance” rather than “insurance” and that God would provide for us.

In reality, God’s provision came in the form of my father creating an anti-health care philosophy. Drawn by something only a bit more philosophical than pure sour grapes, my parents read books against modern medical care and considered only alternative medicines which happened to be inexpensive.

My parents went through one of their poorest times when my mother was pregnant with her sixth child. It was at that point that they decided to have a home birth with no prenatal visits and no attendant other than my father. Everything went well, and so my parents continued their practice of unattended home births for five more babies, including myself. By the time I was old enough to be aware that most babies were born in hospitals, my father’s mantra was “only those who were there at conception should be there at birth.” It was years before I understood what he meant, and even more years before I realized that it was a view that my father had chosen only once there was insufficient money to pay for medical care.

When I was around ten years old my older brother and I played a fabulous game which involved doing somersaults over the backs of the living room chairs and landing on pillows. The game stopped when I landed incorrectly and broke my nose. It never occurred to me to go to my parents for help. It was not that I thought that I would get in trouble, but what were my parents going to do? Offer me ice to put on it? They certainly weren’t going to take me to the hospital for a hurt nose! My nose is now only slightly crooked.

My mother had very firm ideas about when medical intervention was helpful. I suffered through chronic ear infections and bronchitis as a child with only garlic and steam for treatment. But when I was 16 and was coughing up blood with strep throat, she contacted a physician friend for a children’s prescription of penicillin. It worked immediately, and I began to appreciate the wonder of properly utilized medicine.

When I went to college I was legally required to have health insurance, and so I paid for it myself along with all of my other expenses. It took me a year to learn to try seeking help from the college health center, even though the cost was already covered. When I finally did go, I learned that there was some truth to parents claims about the poor quality of modern medical care. The first nurse I sought for help with severe menstrual cramps told me that my options were to either go on the Pill, or else return to running enough to cause anovulation. I was quite certain that was not good advice for a 19-year-old, so I left without doing anything.

My older sister had to lecture me on “being just like our parents!” before I was willing to reconsider and pursue help for a series of health issues. Eventually I learned that half the nurses would be useless but the other half could provide me with both knowledge and useful options for treatment. Once I got a referral out to a real hospital I was struck by how different the medical world was. I could take my knowledge, get the doctor’s opinion, and then choose my own treatment. It was shockingly wonderful to have health care.

These days I worry most for my 19-year-old sister. My mother does not think that my sister needs testing for a thyroid problem, because she has all the symptoms. And what is the point of testing if you already know the diagnosis and will not seek treatment? My sister would at least talk to a doctor about diagnosis and treatment options if she had health insurance. But she does not, and with a limited income and profound concern for the suffering of others, she continues in the path that our parents chose for us and receives no health care.

I know that it is my time to lecture her, but since she does not have health insurance, I bite my tongue. It is difficult, but I have much practice after spending years listening to people talk about how the quality of their health care would suffer if all Americans were offered health insurance.

Image: Maddy Lou
9 Responses to “Growing Up Without Health Insurance”
  1. Thanks for stopping by my blog. I am truthfully do not know what to say. I have never known anything but health insurance. Very eye opening story. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Cassie

    Oh wow. As somebody who grew up going to the doctor, getting shots regularly, and the like, it’s amazing to hear about a completely different way of doing things!

    I’m praying for your sister!

  3. Margaret

    I’m with Cassie on this. We’re both praying for your sister!

    I admit to making some arguments against gov’t sponsored healthcare… they kinda fall apart in the face of this. Kids shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of their parents’ mistakes.

  4. Else

    Hi there!

    I don’t know your name but my heart aches for what you’ve been through. I grew up in a similarly conservative/poor family and know quite well the troubles of such a childhood.

    We turn out okay in the end, those of us who survive, eh?

    Thanks for sharing this. I know it must have been tough!

  5. Wonderfully written–and heart-breaking. There are good and bad doctors, just as there are good and bad police officers, lawyers, soldiers, etc. The fact both exist does not mean the professions aren’t needed. I’m really glad you made it through childhood without any serious complications, and will hope the same is true for the rest of your family.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  6. our parents’ philosophies are powerful influences our subconscious. a counselor I spoke to once said that “our gut comes from our families” — in other words, when we think of going with our instincts, it’s not innate, but inculcated. all the more powerful for your younger sister.

    it’s sad to me that so many Americans truly believe that the quality of their own health care is vastly more important than equal access to health care for all people; and continue to believe the lie that quality can only be obtained when it’s paid for privately.

    thanks for this great piece.

  7. I went through a similar childhood. Believing we know what it wrong with us or our loved ones does become inculcated into the family psyche even when we are no longer limited by a lack of insurance.

    My father became ill when I was 11, thought he knew what was wrong, and chose to treat it himself. By the time he collapsed and realized he was wrong, it was too late to do anything about the stage four cancer diagnosis. My brother repeated our father by ignoring his debilitating back pain, thinking he must have a strain and suffered the exact same result – a stage four cancer diagnosis.

    The senseless of it is what haunts me the most. Thank you for contributing this post.

  8. cami

    This is a very eye-opening view of why people who need healthcare the most, fight the idea of health-care for all. It still doesn’t make it right, though, because it is their children who suffer, either from not having parents throughout their childhood (due to losing them to preventable disease) or not getting proper treatment when they are ill.

  9. Diana

    I also grew up completely without health insurance until college. I now work in Public Health mostly around the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid Expansion. I believe health insurance should be a human right and available to everyone, but ironically, I still don’t go to the doctor unless there is no other choice. Even though I have an excellent health benefits package and I know more than most why health care is important, I still find myself only accessing care at urgent care clinics or the emergency room, where most low-income people with no health insurance often receive their last-minute, delayed care. Life-long habits are hard to break, which is why it is so important to institutionalize the notion that health care is a human right and for us to do whatever we can to enable access to health care. Thank you for sharing your story, I was feeling a little lonely out there. In the U.S. only about 10% of children are uninsured. Children who grow up completely uninsured until they are 18 years old are even fewer.

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