Melissa Mia Hall, who couldn’t afford health insurance, dies of heart attack

3 Feb

Melissa Mia Hall, 1954-2011

Melissa Mia Hall’s book-reviewing dog, Daisy

Texas author, artist and book industry journalist Melissa Mia Hall once wrote: “When I need help writing book reviews, my dog Daisy is always eager to lend a paw.” After trying to lift Daisy recently, Melissa felt an odd pain in her chest. She told her editor at Publishers Weekly that she had pulled a muscle. She later emailed a friend:

“Right now really hurting. Hurt my chest/back last night lifting Daisy wrong.  She’s too heavy and I pulled muscles, I guess. I thought at first I was having a heart attack it was so awful. Tonight I’m really hurting still. Ibuprofen’s not helping much. Using heating pad. It’s been a long painful day and hard to concentrate on much. Why now?  Sigh… xoxo”

Melissa’s pain worsened. She wrote in a second email:

“This has been the worst day of my life for pain for the past two years, that’s for sure. Thanks for caring! Again, I felt pretty terrible all day, but wrote three book reviews. It was hard, but it distracted me a little from the pain.”

In fact, Melissa was feeling so bad that she promised if the pain didn’t get any better by Friday, she’d go to the doctor. But she never did go. Her friend, author Carolyn Jewel, adds:

“I saw her Thursday when I took food over. She appeared weak and exhausted. A doctor could’ve caught this at an office visit.”

Two days later, on Saturday, January 29th, Melissa Mia Hall was found in her home, dead of a heart attack, and alone except for her beloved Daisy.

Her longtime friend and author Jane Yolen claims:

“Melissa would be alive today if she’d been able to afford health insurance.”

Referring to Melissa as “… simply one of the loveliest of friends”, Jane describes feeling “appalled and devastated by her much-too early death”, which she blamed directly on what she calls “the ghastly health insurance scam we have right now in this country which punishes the poorest amongst us.”

Another friend, Sarah Strohmeyer, echoed this sentiment when she wrote this in The Lipstick Chronicles:

“Diagnosed with glaucoma, Melissa had long stopped taking the expensive medication. She’d given up on new glasses which she also couldn’t afford. And when she contracted strep throat last fall, she begged a doctor to call in a prescription for antibiotics over the phone, which he did – just as he did with the painkillers last week when she thought she’d pulled a muscle.”

But Sarah now believes that if only her friend had been able to afford to see the doctor, he would have suspected more than just a pulled muscle and would have ordered life-saving cardiac tests for her. She quotes Texas lawyer, writer and also one of Melissa’s friends, Laurie Moore, who had written:

“She would’ve had a huge medical bill that she couldn’t pay, and would probably have lost her house over it, but she would be alive instead of just taking pain pills and dying in the night. “

Melissa Mia Hall’s reluctance to see a doctor is tragically common behaviour among Americans who can’t afford health insurance. A 2009 Harvard study published in the American Journal of Public Health found more than 44,800 unnecessary deaths annually were associated with lack of insurance. One of the Harvard authors concluded:

“One uninsured person now dies every 12 minutes.”

By all accounts, Melissa was unable to afford health insurance despite being a prolific and hard-working self-employed writer. According to Peter Cannon, her Publishers Weekly editor, she wrote hundreds of book reviews for PW, in all different genres. He wrote in Melissa’s eulogy:

“In recent years, ever reliable and diligent, she was reviewing three books a week for me. She was about to ship out her latest novel to her U.K. editor.  She still had no word from the agent who had her funny mystery, but she was already plotting a sequel just in case. And she was excited about a new blog she’d launched, devoted to author interviews.”

Her friend Sarah Strohmeyer reminds us that Melissa had a career she loved. She owned a home. She paid her taxes. But as senior economist Dr. Heather Boushey, author of Hardships in America: The Real Story of Working Families, explains:

“We no longer live in a world where having a job means you’re automatically able to make ends meet.”

When Melissa did see a doctor last spring after a serious fall in a parking lot, the unexpected medical bills wiped her out financially, according to her friend Carolyn Jewel:

“She’d injured both ankles and had to borrow crutches from a friend to get around. The ankles never healed properly, and there was some speculation that she had hairline fractures. This year, the day after her birthday, she attended my wedding with the aid of a cane.”

There are so many tragic aspects of Melissa’s story. First, of course, is the issue of people living in the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth who simply cannot afford to get sick because they do not have health insurance.

Also, the news of Melissa’s death ironically coincides with the media launch this week of a major government heart attack awareness campaign aimed at women, called Make The Call – Don’t Miss A Beat. This new campaign encourages us to learn the seven most common heart attack symptoms in women (which include the chest and back pains that Melissa described to her friends, but passed off as just a pulled muscle from trying to lift Daisy).

This campaign also urges women to do what Melissa believed she could not afford to do: call 911 at the first sign of potential heart attack.  Research shows that women in mid-heart attack are far more likely than men to engage in what doctors call treatment-seeking delay behaviours. In fact, the new Make The Call campaign cites a study last year that found only half of women studied said that they would even call 911 if they believed they were having a heart attack, a percentage that’s significantly down from 80% just five years ago.

Several writers this week have also commented on the ironic timing of the announcement of Melissa’s tragic death coming during the same week as the Barbara Walters Special: A Matter of Life and Death on Friday, February 4, 2011 on ABC television.  Walters, a recent open heart surgery patient herself, interviewed President Bill Clinton, David Letterman, Robin Williams, and other (rich, white, male) celebrities – each of whom you can rest assured is well protected by expensive and extensive health care coverage, a peace of mind that Melissa Mia Hall and millions of American working people like her have never had.

In many ways, as a heart attack survivor and an outside observer of these ironies from Canada (“Commie-pinko land of socialized medicine for all!“), I think that health care in the United States seems a lot like the traditional caste system of “haves” and “have nots” in India. At one end of the scale, you have the fabulously wealthy heart patient friends of Barbara Walters and their world-class, state-of-the-art concierge medical care, and at the other you have the average, ordinary, tax-paying, working-class person like Melissa dying alone in her home because she couldn’t afford to see the doctor.

The last piece that Melissa Mia Hall published before she died was this guest column called What Makes A Book Memorable: One Book Critic’s Perspective. Her memorial service was held on Saturday, February 12th at St John’s Episcopal in Fort Worth, Texas.

© February 2011 – Carolyn Thomas – www.myheartsisters.org

See also:


♥    This article ranked as one of the most-read posts on Heart Sisters in 2011.

11 Responses to “Melissa Mia Hall, who couldn’t afford health insurance, dies of heart attack”

  1. dar September 5, 2012 at 4:45 am #

    v.sad, but we all can learn from this. Ms Melissa was taking pain pills for years.

    John Mandrola, MD at drjohnm.org, writes:

    “Reports documenting the dangers of Non-Steroidal-Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) continue to generate headlines. It’s a steady stream of bad news for patients who take these widely-available pain relievers.
    I have written many times before about how people who take NSAIDs have higher risks of:
    high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, kidney disease, atrial fibrillation, and death.
    And it is already well established that NSAIDs exacerbate gastro-esophageal reflux, and cause stomach ulcers and internal bleeding…”

    Like

    • Carolyn Thomas September 5, 2012 at 5:40 am #

      Thanks for this link to the always-valuable words of cardiologist Dr. John Mandrola. We know that Melissa was on pain meds for the last year of her life after her ankle injury, but don’t know what type of meds she was on.

      Dr. John’s warning is important, particularly if you have a history of heart disease: even short-term use is linked to an increased risk of heart attack or death. He also warns: “I’m sick of fighting with patients, and surprisingly, with other doctors, about stopping them.” These pain pills include ibuprofen (Advil), naprosyn (Aleve), diclofenac (Voltaren), celecoxib (Celebrex).

      Like

  2. Mary K August 8, 2011 at 6:09 am #

    It is not hopeless to not have health insurance. There are free clinics set up to help the working poor — I should know, I volunteer at one (I am an adult nurse practitioner). You can also call healthcare providers and ask about their policies for self-pay patients. Many times they will offer a discount for cash. They can also provide samples given to them by pharmaceutical reps.

    The important thing is to have a provider lined up ahead of time (before you get sick). It is so much cheaper to budget for regular health maintenance than to pay for hospitalization. Just think, if Melissa had gone to a doctor and had conditions that could be treated with lifestyle changes (diet and exercise) and medications, she might still be alive because she would have prevented (or at least delayed) the final insult.

    And if you can’t afford medications, you can always appeal to the pharmaceutical companies for free or reduced fees medications. Just use your search engine to find the forms.

    Like

    • Carolyn Thomas August 8, 2011 at 6:28 am #

      Thanks Mary – low-income Americans who qualify can try the Prescription Assistance Program or Needy Meds for help with free or low-cost meds. Both also offer info on finding free or low-cost medical clinics.

      Like

  3. Sandra February 16, 2011 at 8:16 am #

    This is a truly frightening story. She is only one person, one of thousands who die like this – why do I feel so horrible about her particular story? Maybe it’s the exchange of emails in what turned out to be her dying days, maybe it is as you say the IRONIC TIMING of her death. It doesn’t have to be this way. It SHOULD NOT be this way. I just feel sick about it.

    Excellent article—- I am forwarding this to all my friends and family. Thank you and R.I.P Melissa Mia Hall.

    Like

  4. LauraR February 4, 2011 at 10:08 pm #

    Too many of us are dangerously close to this predicament. My husband “thought” he had coverage from his previous employer, though with a large deductible. Turns out his 3 hour visit to the emergency room was billed at just under $12,000.00 which is full retail, and about 3 times what an insurance company pays. However, because his deductible was $15,000, the hospital refused to extend the pricing from his insurance, and the insurance carrier had negotiated this “gap” to keep their rates down.

    We just hope we can stay healthy until we reach 65 and medicare “might” be available. How many of us will die or bankrupt before we take back our healthcare from the insurance companies?

    Like

  5. New Allie February 4, 2011 at 9:58 am #

    Great post Carolyn.

    I was thinking about this very thing this morning as I watched Barbara Walters on “The View.” It’s simply wrong. The US is not a country where Equal Rights are a given. I’ve thought about whether our government could manage a health care program as Canada does. Our government, at least up til now, has proven its belief in inequality time and time again on so many levels and in so many ways.

    Our government, though probably behind the opinion of the majority, is still sadly a reflection of “us.” We have our voice and our vote and far too few of us use either. Those we elect to represent us are guaranteed life long premium health coverage in exchange for a couple of years work. It’s no wonder they are so completely out of touch with the reality so many of us live with.

    To call 911 sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Not. Thanks again.

    Like

  6. Laura February 4, 2011 at 7:45 am #

    Thank you so much for boosting the signal on this infuriatingly tragic story.

    It’s especially poignant that here at the beginning of American Heart Month, we have a woman dying from a heart attack, because without insurance, she was too afraid to seek medical help for her chest pain.

    Like

  7. Tepary February 4, 2011 at 4:43 am #

    Oh what a loss and what a bloody tragedy. Yes we should be outraged here in the US. What happened to our momentum and our zeal with regards to health care reform? Given so many of us live in fear of losing what little health insurance we have, and so many don’t have any, why were the voices of those who were so against it so much louder? As an expat of the UK I really don’t understand the fear about a universal health care system.

    Rest in peace Melissa.

    The rest of us? We need to speak up and louder about the costs of not providing health care for all. The cost to the individual and to the community.

    Like

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Reporting on Health - February 23, 2011

    […] Heart Sisters blogger Carolyn Thomas details the sad story of an uninsured journalist who didn’t seek medical attention for chest pain (despite emailing her friends about it) and soon died of a heart attack. RIP. (Hat Tip: Grand Rounds ) […]

    Like

  2. Topsy.com - February 3, 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter “Woman who couldn’t afford health insurance dies of heart attack […]

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