I Am Not Margaret Mary Vojtko

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I have not posted to it for almost two weeks.

I made my previous post to this blog on Thursday, January 9th. I was supposed to be flying that day to Las Vegas for the Western Regional Conference of the Collective Bargaining Congress. But the night before, as I was packing, I felt a sharp pain across my lower abdomen that made me stand upright and catch my breath. I had been experiencing such discomfort very intermittently for about four or five days, and I had self-diagnosed it as some sort of “stomach virus” or “upset.” (I am a “doctor,” but somehow I can very readily convince myself that I am a physician.)

I went downstairs and for about an hour mulled over whether I ought to travel to Las Vegas or cancel my plane ticket. At that point, I had no sense that my illness was serious or even getting worse. Rather, I was simply considering whether the illness was nagging enough or distracting enough to warrant canceling my plans. In the end, I decided to call the airline and cancel.

The next day I felt well enough to start second-guessing my decision. But on Friday, I woke with a general sense that I was feeling more poorly. The distension in my abdomen seemed suddenly to become much more pronounced and the painful discomfort steadily more intense. And by the time that I fell asleep in my recliner, I was feeling very ill and had escalated my use of over-the-counter medications, thinking that if I didn’t feel better the next morning, I would visit the family doctor.

When my wife came downstairs the next morning, I told her to call an ambulance because I didn’t think that I could get myself in and out of the car. About two hours later, I was in surgery. I had a strangulated and perforated colon, and there doesn’t seem to be any ready explanation for why my colon suddenly twisted until it tore. When I came to in the recovery room and the surgeon asked how I was feeling, I said, without any irony, “Much better.” I could feel the long, fresh incisions across my lower torso, but that pain was much, much more bearable than what I had been experiencing ahead of the surgery.

This past Saturday, a week after I was admitted to the hospital, I came home. I would have had to go to an extended-care facility for several weeks, but my wife is an RN and, with the assistance of our son, she has taken on the burden of my daily care. I have been told that it will be at least six to eight weeks before I am fully recovered from this surgery. I am feeling steadily better—amazingly better actually, given the nature of the surgery—but I have almost no reserves of energy and after eating no more than a slice or two of toast, I feel quite full. Those of you who know me—who have watched me demolish a plate of pasta or a pizza, perhaps with a couple of quarts of beer—will surely find that as ironic, not to mention as funny, as I do.

But I feel that I have much to be thankful for—in particular, the outpouring of expressions of concern and support and the gestures of kindness from many of those with whom I work at Wright State and with whom I have been involved in AAUP at the state and the national levels.

I am also very thankful that as I and my family have been dealing with this medical crisis, we have not had to worry at all about the financial impact on us. Over the quarter-century that I have worked at Wright State, I have accumulated a lot of sick leave, and our health-care coverage has an out-of-pocket maximum per person insured that is very modest.

So it has struck me very pointedly and poignantly that I am not Margaret Mary Vojtko, the adjunct professor who taught for decades and died in destitution. Indeed, whatever sympathy and outrage that I felt when I first became aware of her story has been much intensified by my now more immediate and visceral recognition of what it must be like to deal with a major medical crisis while worrying about how you will pay for your treatment and how you will possibly pay all of your other bills while trying to convalesce.

So, having indulged myself in a great American pastime in recounting the most recent chapter in my personal medical history, I would like to reassert the obvious: if the leaders of our institutions have any sense of conscience, they should provide health care coverage to all employees. I know that many will immediately raise ostensibly “pragmatic” objections by wondering out loud who will pay for such coverage—by pointing to the steady increase in the portion of institutional budgets consumed by the costs of providing health-care coverage to full-time employees.

But the truth is that, despite the escalation of those costs, the cost to provide healthcare to full-time faculty still represents a very small percentage of the average institution’s total budget, and the funding to provide such insurance for all faculty can easily be found elsewhere. In most cases, it is simply a matter of priorities.

At Wright State, for instance, we subsidize intercollegiate athletics to the tune of about $7.75 million per year. It should not have to be an either-or choice between health-care coverage and any other single budget item, because smaller savings can be found in any number of places. But let’s say it were an either-or choice. What does it suggest that an university chooses to field a basketball or a lacrosse team over providing even very basic healthcare coverage to about half of those who are teaching its students?

9 thoughts on “I Am Not Margaret Mary Vojtko

  1. Yes, here’s to a speedy recovery. And if sharing your story helps anybody understand such a profoundly important but obvious point without having to go through the same scare, then it’s good you told it.

  2. My wife is a federal employee – Library of Congress. On January 27 last year she went for what was supposed to be an MRI preparatory to referral to a pain management specialist. That was Sunday evening. She left the hospital the following Saturday, having in the interim been discovered to have a large soft tissue mass at the juncture of her thoracic and lumbar spines, lesions up and down her spine, and fortunately, a diagnosis of multiple myeloma – much more treatable that the original preliminary thought of metastatic organ cancer, even though it had done real damage to her spine. She had already begun radiation treatment, would later have that overlap with chemo, and when she responded well chose to undergo an autologous stem cell transplant. She has since she first returned from the hospital in February slept in a hospital bed, which we will still have. She remains on a maintenance dose of a thalidomide derivative. Her blood chemistry is monitored every couple of weeks.

    As a federal employee, she had superb health care coverage. The nominal bills for her treatment so far, were she not on a plan that negotiates down the price, and which includes full prescription drug coverage, would be in excess of $130,000. Our out of pocket costs were capped at less than $10,000, although with the start of a new calendar year we have to start over on the deductible.

    Absent health insurance she never would have gone in for the MRI, because she could not have afforded it much less the referral to and treatment by a pain management specialist. And guess what? while she might not yet be done, she almost certainly would have snapped her spine – her condition was that precarious on January 27, that any kind of fall or sudden twist would have done that, and as time went on and the mass grew it would have been inevitable. And then what?

    That we are the only industrialized democracy that STILL has a major chunk of its citizens uninsured is a moral outrage.

    Frankly, I do not care how we get there, although my preference would be single payer because it would be the best containment of costs. That we have not is for many Americans the sword of Damacles that hangs ever over them.

    Martin, you had a choice of whether to seek medical care earlier. Too many Americans do not.

    And until the Patient Affordable Care Act removed lifetime caps, far too many Americans who had insurance still faced personal bankrupcty with a family medical crisis.

    That academic institutions still look for reasons to deny benefits, who seek to shift academic burdens to adjuncts who are underpaid and uninsured teaches a louder – and undemocratic – lesson than the content of any academic course: that some people are less worthy of our concern.

    I would not wish to work at or attend such an institution,whether those so treated are academic adjuncts or janitorial staff.

    • This is not directly in response to your comment, but I’d like to clarify that my recent medical emergency did not provide me with a sudden revelatory insight into the injustice in our exploitation of adjunct faculty; rather, it re-emphasized that injustice to me and seemed to provide an occasion for re-addressing that injustice.

      More to your comment, in writing this post, I did overlook the fact that I had the luxury of seeking an earlier diagnosis, a luxury that those without insurance don’t have. That’s an excellent point.

      Lastly, and I say this with tremendous sadness, I am not sure if there is a college or university in the entire country at which all employees receive basic benefits.

      I purposely focused on instructional personnel for two reasons. First, one of the causes of the over-reliance on adjunct faculty is administrative bloat. So one favored category of employee is hired full-time with benefits, while another exploited category is not. And given the ostensible missions of our institutions, there is a very obvious problem with priorities in those categories. Second, at most of our institutions, basic services, such as maintenance, have been outsourced, with the effect that we do not have to confront directly our treatment of those workers.

  3. What a joy to have Marty’s (cyber)voice back on the blog, as to the point and biting as ever! Hoping for a swift and full recovery — and for basic equity and fairness in health care.

  4. Pingback: Dear “Whining Adjuncts,” Just for the Record Even I Think That This Is Tone Deaf | The Academe Blog

  5. Pingback: 2014 Through the Academe Blog: January | The Academe Blog

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