By Brandon Martin
As the covid-19 pandemic dominated the headlines in late March, a Martinsville woman quietly celebrated the 10th anniversary of the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Gerie Fahindimo shared her story of fighting ovarian cancer before the act was passed.
“I had been having a lot of irregular cycles, heavy cycles. I had a lot of pain,” she said of her symptoms before her November 2005 diagnosis. “I was working temporary jobs so I had no insurance benefits.”
Fahindimo said that she was still young at the time and the thought of her having ovarian cancer never occurred to her, or even the doctors. The process was anything but easy for her either.
“I went to the doctor and one scheduled me to get scans done,” she said. “I went and had that done but they didn’t scan the right part. Then I had to schedule to go back.”
She said she even had a procedure done to her without any warning.
“One doctor did a biopsy right there while I was on the table and I didn’t know he was going to do it,” she said adding that she “never went back because of that.”
At the time, Fahindimo was working as an administrative assistant for a local law firm. The position was classified as a temporary position, which meant that she didn’t qualify for health benefits.
“All of this is costing me money and I had no insurance,” she said. “It got to be expensive and I just let it go over a while because I didn’t have insurance.”
Eventually, Fahindimo landed a job that offered her health benefits after a trial period; however, she said that wasn’t the end of her struggles.
“They promised me insurance after my trial session, which I think was three months. Three months came and went, and I had no insurance,” she said. “I finally got tired of it and I wrote them a letter and said that I really needed my insurance benefits. Because of that letter they terminated me immediately. I figured they would do that.”
By the time Fahindimo landed another job, she said her condition had gotten even worse.
“I even got sick at work one day,” she said. “My mom picked me up at work. I didn’t even drive home. I made an appointment with my doctor. He scheduled me for some tests the next day. Well, I got in the parking lot at the doctor’s office and I threw up again.”
The incident prompted her doctor to send her to the hospital earlier than originally planned, and there she received the bad news.
“I still remember the look on the doctor’s face,” she said. “He was so sorry. I could see the hurt in his face. I didn’t know it at the time, but for a lot of people, ovarian cancer was a death sentence. The survival rate for ovarian cancer wasn’t very high because most people aren’t diagnosed with it early enough for them to treat the disease. I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Ovarian Cancer.”
When she visited the oncologist, Fahindimo decided to act immediately and have the surgery.
“I didn’t have to think about it,” she said. “I wanted it out of me. To me, it was an evil invasion of my body. I had felt like I had lived with it long enough and I wanted it out so I had the surgery. Six months after that, we started chemotherapy.”
Fahindimo was in the need of a hero at the time, and she said her sister stepped in to fill that role.
“She took me to every appointment, which was for six weeks,” she said. “After chemotherapy, the next day you’d have bloodwork done. And then you’d have to see the doctor again to start the process all over again. It was a very busy schedule. She showered me.”
Her sister’s actions were especially touching to Fahindimo given the circumstances her sister was facing.
“Even during that time, my sister, a week after I was diagnosed, she was also diagnosed with cancer,” she said. “She decided to delay her treatment until I was done with my stuff. I never will forget that.”
Fahindimo said that her sister has since died.
“For the next three years, I’d go to my appointments until I was cancer-free,” she said. “My doctor was very pleased with my progress because she thought I’d lose my hair, but thankfully, I didn’t.”
For everything that she went through, Fahindimo said that she thinks that it could have all been avoided if she could have signed on under the ACA at the time.
“I feel like I wouldn’t have had to go through all of that if I had insurance. It would have been discovered sooner. I would have kept my doctor appointments and went back for follow-up appointments,” she added.
“My heart goes out to the thousands of people that don’t have insurance,” Fahindimo said. “Those who didn’t have insurance like myself and weren’t diagnosed in time. Doctors will tell you that you can stop things if you catch them early enough. Even patients that have heart attacks. Sometimes they have symptoms that let you know that maybe things aren’t right. You may find that you don’t come down with the worst-case scenario.”
Now, as unemployment rolls continue to swell, many government officials are focusing on the nation’s healthcare system. One move that has been suggested is to re-open enrollment for medical insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and Vice President Mike Pence is focused on private insurance companies waiving fees for testing and on states expanding Medicaid.
But according to the non-profit group Martinsville and Henry County Virginia Organizing, the ACA provided coverage to more than 20 million Americans through private insurance marketplaces and Medicaid expansion in 36 states and the District of Columbia.
Ophelia Griggs, a member of the organization, said people in the Martinsville-Henry County area benefited from the passage of the program.
“Pre-existing conditions, medication costs, additional maternity leave, I could list the benefits until I’m blue in the face,” Griggs said. “The effect the law had on healthcare costs and medication costs was probably felt nowhere greater than places like Martinsville-Henry County.”
The ACA looks a little different from its original passage, according to a release by Virginia Organizing. The organization is worried about how changes to the law will impact those that originally benefited from the program.
“Since its passage in 2010, opponents in Congress and some states have tried to repeal, undermine and weaken the ACA,” the release said. “In President Trump’s first year, they tried repeatedly to repeal the ACA through various bills that failed in Congress largely because of tremendous public outcry against these efforts. Constituents across the country confronted their representatives for trying to take away health care and sent a clear message that the ACA is here to stay.”
Griggs said their organization has been on the front-lines, attempting to fight back against attempts to repeal and replace the law all along.
“Originally, the law wasn’t too popular in our area, but after it was passed, a lot of people saw the necessity in keeping it,” she said. “It caused the hospital in Patrick County to close down and affected so many in our area. When it came back around to the ballot again, we got out the vote and saved it.”
Griggs said that it is their organization’s job to keep the community knowledgeable of state and national issues that affect the area. “You have a voice and it matters,” she said.