The Washington Post

There Is No Help for Poor People Like Me

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An occasional feature in which readers describe how they have adjusted to life with a chronic illness.

Idon’t even know what’s wrong with me. I haven’t been properly diagnosed. I don’t have insurance. The last time I visited a doctor for myself was at the local hospital’s indigent clinic, where I saw a young woman intern who sympatheti­cally told me I needed to see a mental health counselor instead of her. I told her I’d been to the local mental health center a year earlier: They informed me they were out of money and would treat only the ones who “really” needed help. I suppose that meant the ones who run screaming through the streets or shoot up schools. I’m not quite that bad off, though sometimes I feel like maybe I should try that just to get help.

For people like me, who get the bare basics done but little else, there is no help. I exist. I get food stamps. Nothing else. A nurse who cared for my 82-year-old mother once asked me why I hadn’t applied for Medicaid. I didn’t know what to tell her. How do you explain that when you’re feeling so low you can barely walk to the bathroom, you don’t really feel like going to a public office and trying to explain to some stranger that there’s something wrong with you, that you don’t know how long it will last, that antidepres­sants were tried but didn’t work and you have no faith left in the mental health center?

I used to see poor people and think, “Just get a job.” Now, I am the poor.

Jennie Rhineharto­f Spartanbur­g, S.C.

Ihave a condition doctors sometimes have difficulty pronouncin­g, which makes me feel both smart and worried. Two years ago, I was given a diagnosis of Sjogren’s (pronounced SHOW-grins) syndrome, an autoimmune disease that attacks my body’s moisture-producing glands.

You never really value your ability to produce saliva and tears until you have a problem. Eyelashes that fall into my eye cause excruciati­ng pain. Braces that should have lasted 21⁄ years stayed on for four: Orthodonti­a had created a breeding ground for bacteria, and without adequate saliva to wash debris away.

Sjogren’s affects between 1 million and 4 million people in the United States. But it is underrecog­nized, and it took a distressin­g year and a half for me to receive a diagnosis.

Multiple doctors posited stress as an explanatio­n for a constellat­ion of symptoms that ranged from fatigue to joint pain. After some prodding and Internet research, I managed to convince my nurse practition­er to test the antibodies in my blood. Later on, I learned of possible complicati­ons, like a risk of developing another autoimmune disease.

So whenever the parade of tired women shuffles through my rheumatolo­gist’s office, I try not to daydream about a cure for a chronic disease that doctors can only treat and instead take comfort in knowing what I have.

— Stacy Torres of New York If you have a story about living with chronic illness that you would like to share, send it to health@washpost.com. Include your postal address and phone number and mark the subject line “Living With.” No more than 250 words, please.

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