“What’s going to happen?” I asked myself as I took one more sip of Mountain Dew, closed my notebook and stood up from the dining room table. “I’m 25 years old and I’ll only have to go without full coverage for one year.” I’d finally made my decision.
I’d worked the first six months out of pharmacy school at a job that I really enjoyed. In December of 2006, however, a new career opportunity crossed my path that I could not turn down. I’d be able to work in a town only eight miles from where my wife, Missy, and I had grown up. We’d always wanted to go back there after I graduated from pharmacy school and here was the chance to do just that. I would receive a large pay raise and would be the manager for a pharmacy that was to open six months later.
This new position came with only one drawback. For the first year, I would have a cap on my health insurance of $25,000. For someone much older or who was not healthy, taking a position with only $25,000 in health insurance coverage would have been irresponsible. For a 25 year old healthy man, however, it was very unlikely that I would need more than that amount.
I accepted the new position and during the next few months I searched and searched for supplemental health insurance that would pick up where my primary insurance plan maxed out. After talking to five or six insurance agents, I finally gave up. No insurer was interested in providing the back-up coverage. Missy and I were still a little nervous, but we had only eight more months to wait until we would have full medical coverage.
Then, in September 2007, disaster struck. While showering, I noticed a large lump in my scrotum area. I was a little concerned so I mentioned it to Missy. She was much more concerned than I was and set up a doctor’s appointment for me the following day.
In October of 2007, after about four grueling weeks of worry, doctors’ appointments and surgery, I was diagnosed with Stage 3 metastatic testicular cancer. We were stunned and began to sob together as we arrived home that afternoon. I would be starting intense chemotherapy the following Monday.
“At least it is treatable”, Missy said as we dropped down on the couch. “Remember, the doctor said that there is an 80% chance that your cancer can be cured with chemotherapy.”
“ I know. That is good news,” I said between shallow breaths full of tears. “But our insurance,” I continued. “It will only cover up to $25,000. Do you know how much chemotherapy costs? We’re going to blow through that amount in the first few weeks. Then what are we going to do? How can this happen to us?”
“Don’t think about the money right now, Aaron,” she whispered, wiping her eyes and getting up from the couch. “We have enough to worry about right now. You need to try to get some rest. God will take care of us,” she said as she walked into the kitchen, her shoulders braced for what was ahead.
I buried my head in a pillow and, sobbing, said a small prayer asking God to see us through the upcoming months. We had never faced something like this before and we were terrified.
Missy was a stay-at-home mother to our only child, Devan, who was about eighteen months old at the time. She’d never left him for more than a few hours at a time. But during the next nine weeks we developed a new routine. Four days a week we would leave him with a relative who lived nearby and Missy and I would go to my chemotherapy sessions. Each session would last between four to six hours. After one week of intense chemotherapy, I would get two weeks off, other than a few hours on Tuesdays. Those weeks off were filled with doctor appointments, lab tests and breathing tests to make sure that the chemotherapy was not destroying my lung capacity, which was a possible side effect of one of the drugs.
I was exhausted all of the time. I would drag myself around in sweatpants and T-shirts. I began to develop hiccups that were painful and constant during my chemotherapy sessions. I also began to have severe nausea and vomiting that also was relentless. I had to carry around a bag to vomit in almost everywhere I went. I had purchased two books to read while I sat through chemotherapy and had also purchased a couple of movies to watch at home. I was too sick to enjoy either reading or watching. I lied cross-wise on our bed for hours at a time, trying to sleep to push the nine weeks along. Although my body was completely drained, my mind was not and I couldn’t slow it down enough to enjoy a good deal of sleep. On top of how miserable I felt, I constantly worried about money and always wondered how fast our medical bills were piling up and when we were going to go over the $25,000 insurance cap.
In December of 2007, with only two more sessions of chemotherapy remaining, my oncology doctor decided to halt the chemotherapy regimen early. The drug with the lung concerns was straining my lung capacity and the benefits of continuing treatment were not worth the risk of permanent lung damage. Although I had to stop treatment early, my cancer did go into remission.
It was, of course, a huge blessing. But even with the cancer in remission, I did have to face Christmas knowing that the medical bills were going to start pouring in and I had no idea how I was going to pay for them.
One evening at my parents’ house, my mom told me that one of her friends had approached her and wanted to organize a benefit to help pay for our medical bills. My pride took over right away and I said that we were not interested. We would find a way to pay for our bills. It was our fault anyways. We should have never taken the chance on the health insurance.
A couple of days later, after many discussions, Missy and I pushed our pride aside and agreed to the benefit. We had never accepted charity before and did not know how to receive anything graciously, but we were desperate. We also figured that if this was God’s plan, then we were going to get out of the way and let him do it.
After we agreed to the benefit, planning began with a fury. A group of twelve to fifteen people began to meet weekly to plan the benefit. Led by the gracious, energetic woman with the original plan and the Pastor of our Church, the plans came together quickly. Although we did not know it at the time, the group of planners also regularly prayed that God would prepare our hearts to accept the gifts given to us.
As we walked into the Ag Pavilion in our county seat town on the morning of Saturday, January 8, 2008, the scene inside was amazing. Dozens of people, family and friends, were hurrying around the building getting everything set up. Each of the volunteers wore a brown shirt with a specific Bible verse on it. The shirts were created specifically for the event and were sold as part of the benefit. The wonderful scent of chili, cinnamon rolls and chicken noodle soup came from the kitchen area as four to five volunteers swiftly set up the buffet lines. Lined up in a neat row along the west wall were tables holding all of the items to be offered on the Silent Auction. Along the North edge of the building, just in front of the auction stage and along the east wall of the building were all of the items that had been donated. There were free dinners, gift certificates to restaurants, gift certificates for services such as excavation, dump truck loads, and even taxidermy. Additionally, people donated guns, antiques, quilts, and just about anything else one could think of. Outside the building stood three horses that had been donated, and in a small crate inside huddled a few puppies to be auctioned.
As people began to file into the building a quiet spirit of happiness filled the air. Dear friends and relatives were smiling, laughing and having a good time. For many, it turned into an opportunity to connect with acquaintances that they had not seen in a while. There was a spirit of giving and a spirit of grace that is hard to describe, but was very contagious. Many were to comment, in the days and weeks following the benefit, that they had really enjoyed their time there. And many who attend our small church also participated, which brought the church community a little closer together.
After about three hours, including a buzzed haircut for our Pastor (due to a challenge that he made for how much money could be raised), the benefit was over. The results were unbelievable. More than 700 people filled the building for the lunch and the auction. $52,000 had been raised. That $52,000 covered all of our medical expenses in full. We owed nothing.
Words could not express my gratitude to those who participated and those who volunteered at the benefit. It had been our decision to take that job without the health insurance that we needed and we felt we deserved to pay the price for that decision. But our families, friends and neighbors did not see it that way. They came together for us when we were in trouble. They gave us grace. A small farming community in the center of Nebraska drew together for us, their neighbors, when we three neighbors, father, mother and son, needed help.
Over the last 7 years I’ve struggled with the fact that I cannot give back to those who so freely gave to me. So many gave so much and most of the gifts were given anonymously. I have no way to thank each one of them individually, let alone pay them back. The truth is those prayers lifted up during the planning meetings were very important. It is not easy to be on the receiving end of a great gift.
After contemplating this for the last few years, our lives and attitudes have changed. We are no longer as focused on having the biggest and the best material things. We have decided that the only way we can give back is to pass on what was freely given to us. When others are in need, my family can be there for them. We can live lives of purpose and we can serve others when God calls us to do so.