Daniel Tilson: Florida's uninsured left standing in the shadow of hopelessness

Shirley dragged long and hard on her lipstick-stained cigarette. She alternated between shaking and nodding her head while listening to new friend Toni talk trash about politicians.

“They did it again, threw us under the bus. They don’t know us, they don’t give a damn about us, we’re just bugs on their windshield, that’s all, just as long as we get wiped out of the way, don’t matter whether we live or die, now does it?”

“To hell with them,” spit out Shirley, peeling the cigarette filter off her lower lip and throwing the barely still-smoking bit of a leftover butt to the ground below. “Life and death matters to me, matters to my momma, matters to my God, my sisters and brothers…maybe even to my nieces and nephews…” That made her stop and smile a second before her lips curled back down.

”Staying alive matters to me and mine,” she said, patting at her chest.

Amen, Sister,” said Toni. “Poor colored people’s lives mean just as much as those rich white men making and breaking the rules up in Tallahassee.”

The two black women stood huddled together in darkness near the hospital Emergency Room entrance. Toni had introduced herself as “Tiny Toni” when asking for a cigarette – five-feet-one-inches of skin and bones surrounding oversized, searching eyes, full of emotion. When she looked up at six-inches-taller and severely obese Shirley squinting down at her, you might have thought they really were sisters.

But the two women were strangers until fate took them both by surprise this night.

Shirley woke up in a sweat, heart pounding, out of breath. She’d spent the first half of the day looking for work at local restaurants and stores, the second half watching her sister’s three kids…and the night feeling physically worse and worse. With no health insurance or doctor of her own, no medicine and almost no money…she ended up waiting 25 minutes for a bus to the local ER. Now she was waiting for care.

When Toni saw and approached her, it was an hour into her own wait for word on her boyfriend Ron. She and Ron, both stuck in poverty-wage jobs with no health insurance or other benefits, had spent the afternoon fishing in a canal near the rooming house where they lived. When they finally caught one big enough to want to keep, Ron couldn’t gut and clean it. His hands were numb and tingling. Eight hours later and barely any better, Toni got him to the ER. Now she waited and worried.

It was after midnight but still 82 degrees and steam-bath humid in this South Florida tourist town. Most residents were fast asleep in their condo colonies and HOA communities, secure in the knowledge they were covered by private insurance or Medicare. But in the far corner of town where most of the low-income black folks lived, there was rampant insecurity, there was restlessness, sleeplessness…and ever-growing hopelessness.

Shirley lit another pair of cigarettes for her and Toni, talking between puffs and coughs. “You know…I had a little hope, when I heard Obamacare was going to get us all health insurance. Should’ve known the powers-that-be and the crackers that put them there would never let that happen…not in Florida.”

Toni laughed as Shirley handed her a lit cigarette. “But look how polite they are now when they’re stabbing us in the back, no more calling us ‘welfare queens,’ or worse. Now, we’re ‘able-bodied childless adults!’ ”

Shirley looked down at the ground. “Still their victims, by any other name…”

Both women were startled by the sound of the ER doors sliding open nearby. An orderly stuck his head out and shouted. “Toni Livingston?”

Toni’s already-fading smile was swallowed up by anxiety in a heartbeat as she hurried to him. “I’m Toni, you have news on my man, Ron Wilford? Has he got feeling back, is he – ?”

Shirley watched them walk inside, calling out, “Good luck, I’ll say a prayer…hoping for the best.” Then she threw her cigarette down and stomped on it for several extra seconds, before taking a long, deep breath and heading back inside to wait for help.

Daniel Tilson has a Boca Raton-based communications firm called Full Cup Media, specializing in online video and written content for non-profits, political candidates and organizations, and small businesses. Column courtesy of Context Florida.     

Daniel Tilson


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