On the day before Valentine’s Day, Victoria Cayce was lying in bed, not sure if she would wake up the following morning.
She had been dealing with lupus for the past 35 years, a disease that wracks her body with constant pain. She was in heart failure, suffering from an enlarged aorta that was rapidly expanding. Her kidneys were not working properly. And she hadn’t eaten a real meal in weeks, due to the severe pain that flared up whenever she ate. She was barely even drinking any water.
She had given up.
“[The ER] had told me in November that I needed to see a gastroenterologist because this might be colon cancer,” Victoria says. “So I called the provider they recommended and spoke with the office manager. At the time I still had insurance, and I had had a hospital stay that should’ve been paid for, but the manager said that that hospital was notorious for taking forever to process their claims. Since my deductible didn’t yet show that I had met it, they said they’d need $1200 upfront. I said I didn’t have that. And she said ‘Not our problem’.”
That one provider putting up a barrier was the tipping point for Victoria. She had lost her job due to her worsening illness, and in turn, lost her insurance shortly after that. These problems were compounding, just like her multiple illnesses, and it didn’t help that they were invisible ones. Just by looking at Victoria, no one would be able to tell that she had lupus or heart failure or that she had recently lost her father and a close friend.
“You can be the walking wounded. And nobody knows. You just live with a certain amount of pain, and even when it’s not overwhelming, it’s a constant, erosive drip, I just gave up. I didn’t want to continue fighting if I didn’t have anyone in my corner to fight with me.”
But when Victoria woke up on Valentine’s Day, something changed.
“I woke up, and I was like ‘My body obviously wants to continue this fight’ so I started drinking water again. Part of the reason I changed my mind was because I’d gotten an email from a friend of mine who had asked around saying ‘Hey, I’ve gotten a friend who’s given up and she’s in pain, does anyone know any affordable services?’ He got back with me and said, ‘You have to call these guys.’ And that was Health Services of North Texas.”
When Victoria went in for her first visit, she barely even had the gas money to get there, and when the time came to pay the $25 for the visit, she couldn’t. She felt embarrassed. She had worked her whole life and had gone through twelve years of higher education to achieve multiple degrees, and yet she was in a place where she needed help.
“At some point in your life, unless you’re incredibly fortunate and wealthy, and even then, crap can happen to you, you might find yourself alone, or homeless, or the victim of domestic violence,” Victoria explained. “You can get the wind knocked out of you, and not know how to pull up out of it.”
From the first moment she walked into the HSNT’s Denton Medical Center, Victoria felt that the staff there understood this.
“The office staff didn’t speak down to me or treat me like an idiot, they just accepted me and said, ‘What do you need?’ And that was so different from going into the ER again.”
During her visit, Victoria saw Tabitha Muriuki, one of HSNT’s Nurse Practitioners. “She’s a sweet lady,” Victoria said. “Mine is a complex medical history, but she’s finding ways around it. What this center has done for me, they’re putting resources, however small, towards that. Like, [HSNT] doesn’t have a cardiologist on staff, but they said ‘We’re going to try and network to get you to see who you need to see’.”
After her visit, one of HSNT’s social workers called Victoria and asked that question again: “What do you need?” Having been out of work for three months, Victoria said that she couldn’t pay her electric bill. She had started to work again but, being a freelance writer, payment can sometimes come weeks or months later.
“She said ‘We’ve got a community grant for that’ and she told me to send her the bill. And I did. And you guys paid it. That has provided more hope and more of a foundation for me. People don’t need a handout, but they do need a hand up. Having a support structure allows you to move back into the world.”
When Victoria left the medical center that first day, she was shaking when she walked back to her car. Overcome with emotion, she started to cry. “I was embarrassed I had to go to somebody else for help and that I couldn’t pay for the visit, but the relief. I felt like I could do this.”
Victoria still isn’t eating full meals, and she admits that her heart disease hasn’t gone away that her pain hasn’t gone away, but she’s getting better. She has liquid meals every other day, her lupus-related pain isn’t agonizing anymore, and her blood pressure has gotten down to a more manageable level.
“Each of us is a light,” she said. “Everybody’s human and all we have is each other. You’re talking to a woman who may or may not be here in a year, but I’m here, in this moment, because I have hope.”