By Megan Davis
The Truth Contributor
It started with a headache. Suzette Cowell had to travel to Washington for work and encountered a young lady who said she hadn’t been feeling well. Returning home, Cowell had a headache and she saw the doctor. They treated the headache for three weeks and said it could be attributed to a sinus infection. She was also tested for the coronavirus, which was negative.
COVID 19 is a virus that has many faces and several symptoms, some of which are not noticed until people report them to healthcare providers and the local health department who have been constantly gathering information from people being treated for it.
Cowell, after being treated for her headache, suddenly fell extremely ill. Unable to walk, the physical weakness prompted her to immediately go to the hospital – a typical reaction for such a feeling. What she didn’t know was that those symptoms would cause her to be admitted to the hospital and subsequently led to her being placed on a ventilator.
I remember when I had a cough, just one singular cough on a Monday, and thought it was random. Since I hadn’t had any other symptoms, I didn’t think I’d been infected. I had been taking precautions and had only been outside the home for a couple of reasons – work and replenishing groceries and household items.
I never would have thought that seven days after one fluke of a cough, that I would feel like I was going to die with every step I took. The unexpected onset of weakness is frightening and all you can think of is falling to your death, something that you don’t prepare for when you’re fairly healthy aside from the common “wear and tear” aches and pains of getting older.
My trip to the hospital interrupted my routine and upended any plans I’d been making. A career healthcare provider, I was planning on reopening my natural hair care salon, after suspending services for six months, to care for my daughter.
I searched two years, while renting a booth at another salon, for a suitable space to open, and I found it at the arrival of the coronavirus in the United States. After admission to Bay Park Hospital, the only thoughts I had were teetering between my mortality and my unfinished work that I had to be alive to complete. The negative air flow machine in the room took out the particles and dispersed them outside to give me a fighting chance to recover.
The oxygen flowing through its cannula to my nose and lungs was a reminder that I couldn’t breathe without it and had to consciously work to take every breath.
This was an experience that Cowell, having been placed on a ventilator, couldn’t have because the machine had to breathe for her.
Incapacitated for 31 days, Cowell, CEO of the Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union, had to undergo physical and occupational therapy as she recovered from the effects of COVID-19. Relearning to walk and function as she once did, she was focused on her healing when she began receiving bills for medical treatments associated with the virus.
Having healthcare insurance, she was blindsided by the bills just as she was by the virus which pounced on her and swiftly changed the course of her life. Before she became ill, she remembered hearing somewhere that the government assured people that they would not have to pay for medical treatment because of the global pandemic.
According to the website insurance.wa.gov, “You should not get a surprise bill for testing for coronavirus. All health plans are covering testing without coinsurance, copays or deductibles when you see an in-network primary care provider or are tested at an in-network facility. If you are treated at an emergency room, you also should not receive a surprise bill from an out-of-network provider. If you have questions about your coverage, contact your health plan. Contact us if you need additional help or if you believe you have received a surprise bill. “
Apparently, Suzette heard correctly.
I can remember talking to the care coordinators about insurance when I was in the hospital. I was in the process of reapplying for health coverage after mine lapsed. I was assured that my coverage would date back three months, so I didn’t worry about medical bills either. When I was discharged, I came home and had to turn around and take my husband to the hospital.
Maybe two days later, when he was in a crisis, I remember receiving a call from the care plan manager telling me that we weren’t approved for insurance although I’d spoken with the providers, stating that I was. Before the coronavirus pandemic, I had been working with the Ebeid Center on finances and credit. I had been on a roll and had seen my credit score increase to a score higher than ever had. We had paid every bill on time for more than two years, and we were working toward more goals when we fell ill.
The often-debilitating illness was only part of the multi-fold effects COVID 19 has on families. Most people who are hospitalized deal with the brunt of the virus for no less than three weeks, but closer to four to six weeks. You can barely get well when you realize that your family has been home, sheltered in place nearly three months and you have been off work.
Minus one or two weeks of income is often a disaster for working-class families. Families who live check-to-check because expenses outweigh wages for the average resident were railroaded by this pandemic. My husband’s job went awry, not because he was in the hospital, but because his employer had no work for him with most businesses being shut down for an unspecified amount of time. This business did not have a pandemic plan in place, as with most businesses.
After having faced death, being separated from family and friends; having no work or working from home, the last thing people need is a stark reminder of their hospitalization with bills from everywhere. Doctors we only spoke to on the phone or saw once or twice during our stay were sending statements. I received emails from University Toledo Medical Center for services as did my husband. Soon after, I was getting text messages about my bill, and to date, I have received more “potential spam” calls in the last two months than I had been getting in the last two to three years combined.
“The influx of medical bills negatively affected my credit score.” Cowell says. Having been successful in her endeavors, she had excellent credit prior to COVID-19.
It’s a slap in the face when you know you have worked hard to maintain a good credit score. I was assaulted! Knowing how important those numbers are, I saw my already derailed plans of purchasing a home running away from me. It already had been a moving target because I chose to close my business during the winter and early spring so that income which was used to pay over the minimum balance due. I was now just maintaining and not paying ahead.
By the time my husband and I started to feel better, we heard about economic stimulus checks being paid out. We received ours and that provided some relief. Reluctant to spend it, three months later, we are still holding onto it.
People have been receiving unemployment, food and cash assistance, we have had some help, but we know it will end. So I put off opening the salon until mid-June and I chose to work my healthcare job in double shifts because I know that the little bit of assistance the government has provided will soon go away. Although we didn’t see much, the little bit was worth saving.
Before financial coaching, I may have taken that stimulus check and paid a few bills off or bought a second vehicle, for cash. It would have been gone. But as I learn more, I decided to take care of the car I have and continue paying my bills on time, because on time is better than finding myself unable to pay at all.
That headache Cowell had, has become a national migraine for people everywhere who are grappling with major decisions that have to be made even though there is a looming uncertainty about what is to come one week, let alone one month from now. As we see the numbers of infected individuals increase this week, businesses are closing their doors again, work from home orders is sustained and families are trying to avoid land mines.
I watched Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods last weekend. It’s about four black men who fought together in Vietnam, who returned to find their fallen brother – the fifth blood. Spoiler alert: there is a scene when the men discover gold they have been looking for that they stashed during the war.
One of the men tells the others that his mother always told him the love of money is the root of all evil. A successful businessman, at one point in his life, he confesses that he lost his fortune to mismanagement of money. Holding a gold bar, he walks backyards yelling at them about their arguing over the gold. One misstep leads him to a land mine that ends his life in a gory and abrupt manner. That shining gold becomes tarnished with blood and grime from the ground around him.
When I asked Cowell how she was dealing with the financial crisis she faces when she contracted COVID-19, it occurred to me that she was focused on her plan to work with the creditors to remedy the issue. I also learned that amidst her struggle, she has been using her expertise in financial matters to encourage others who have lost jobs and family members to COVID-19, to stay within their budgets, utilize community resources like Neighborhood Works to stay on track and receive guidance on navigating throughout the prolonged crisis.
For myself, our financial coach’s office, like many others, are conducting appointments online or by phone, but I haven’t called him because my husband and I made a plan to save what we can, use our gifts to generate income and to keep our minds focused on the goals we set forth.
So far, it has been working, and that business space I acquired in early March for my salon, that sat empty during our health crisis, is now open for business. It just so happened that it is enough space for him to join me and use his gifts to teach art classes while I work in an adjacent space.
While we can count on one hand how often he has been able to work for his employer since the epidemic began, we are counting every dollar that comes in and goes out, prepared for the long haul of unchartered territory. Should any future headaches arise, we have learned first-hand how to treat it.