In author Nicole Chung’s new memoir, “A Living Remedy,” she tells the story of watching both her parents die in the span of two years. It was all the more painful because of her mother and father’s inability to afford the medical treatments they needed.
Chung blames the country’s broken health-care system, at least in part, for the fact that her father died at 67, and her mother at 68. By the time her father finally sought help at a low-cost health clinic, a doctor told him that his kidneys had lost more than 90% of their function. “It is still hard for me not to think of my father’s death as a kind of negligent homicide, facilitated and sped by the state’s failure to fulfill its most basic responsibilities to him and others like him,” Chung writes.
She also chronicles how her parents’ illnesses could never be processed and grieved over for what they meant alone; they always set off financial setbacks and fears, too. While her parents’ health deteriorates, Chung tries to become a writer and take care of her own two daughters, but these efforts are often mixed with frustration that she can’t do more to help the people who raised her. She writes of the “hollow guilt of those who leave hardship behind, yet are unable to bring anyone else with them.”
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Chung’s story is likely to resonate with many. In 2022, a record-high share of Americans (38%) said they or a family member had delayed medical treatments because of costs, according to a Gallup poll.
I spoke with Chung about her grief and the state of American health care. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Annie Nova: Your parents experienced a lot of job insecurity. I’m curious, how much as a child did you understand what was going on for them?
Nicole Chung: It’s hard because, when you’re a child, you’re obviously not privy to financial discussions between your parents. It would not have been appropriate for them to put that on me at that age. But at the same time, definitely by the end of elementary school, I had become used to periods of them being unemployed, and I could really see the strain on their faces.
AN: The scenes of your father managing different pizza shops as he gets older are really upsetting because he’s often mistreated. Was retirement something they ever talked about? Or did they just know they wouldn’t be able to stop working?
NC: It was really difficult to plan for the future, in particular because my parents didn’t know when someone might lose a job, or when somebody would get sick. There wasn’t even an acknowledgment that my father wouldn’t be able to work in the service industry forever.
AN: So both your mother and father, because of worries around money, delayed going to doctors. How did this worsen their conditions?
NC: By the time my father finally got into a community health clinic and got the tests and care he needed, they said, ‘We should have seen you a year ago. Your kidneys have lost over 90% of their function.’ He knew he was getting sicker, but my parents just didn’t have a way to pay for the extensive care he needed.
AN: And with your mother?
NC: With my mother, it’s a little harder to pin down. I write in the book about her battle with cancer. By then, she was on Social Security and disability, and so she had adequate medical care. But when I was in high school, there was a period when we weren’t insured, and she had health problems. I wound up having to drive her to the hospital one night, and it turned out that she had endometriosis. She hadn’t been to a doctor in months. She never told me, ‘I didn’t go because we didn’t have insurance,’ but the fact is we didn’t. And it was partly because things had gotten so bad that the doctors weren’t actually able to remove everything, and that’s where her cancer grew many years later, and what ultimately killed her.
AN: This all happened relatively recently. Was it hard to write about it so soon?
NC: After my father died, I spent months trying to figure out why I was so enraged. Why wasn’t I just sad? Why was I so angry? And it’s the injustice of how he died, the fact that he died younger than he probably would have or needed to, because of years of precarity and lack of access to health care. It suddenly felt very important to talk about.
AN: Going to the community health clinic was such a turning point for your father. I got the sense that you thought the entire health-care system should be more like these clinics.
NC: I think it was hard for my mother to accept that they needed to go to a free clinic. And, of course, it didn’t save him. But it prolonged his life. He was diagnosed with kidney failure and got on dialysis. He was approved for disability. There was all kinds of assistance, even a medical shuttle to bring him to his appointments. So that visit to the clinic unlocked all of these other services and support. That’s often not the case with how health care operates in this country. Instead, it’s hard to access and very expensive.
He knew he was getting sicker, but my parents just didn’t have a way to pay for the extensive care he needed.Nicole Chungauthor of “A Living Remedy”
AN: As you became more financially comfortable, did your parents ask you for help?
NC: I offered my parents what I could, but they were really hesitant to ask for anything because of where I was in my career and because I had two young kids. They knew I didn’t have very much money. And it was kind of devastating to realize that they weren’t asking because they had no expectations. And then, when my mother visited me, she would secretly leave cash behind. I would find it after they left. It was like she was trying to return everything I had given them.
AN: What impact do you hope your book will have on the health-care conversation in the U.S.?
NC: I wanted to write this book, in part, because I wanted to write about my grief. And it felt really important to say that so many people’s experiences of grief are informed by things like what my family went through. Most people who get sick and die in this country aren’t wealthy, because most people in this country aren’t wealthy. These things are going to continue to happen to so many of us at some point. How do we want to meet them as a society? One of the bigger questions that runs through the book is, ‘How do we want to take care of each other?’