GE Stories: Hannah Wellman

Hi, my name is Hannah. I am in my fifth year at UO, and you might not know it from looking at me but I have chronic illnesses. I want to quickly note that I have never sat in a room with this many people and said that out loud. I discuss this with my close circle of friends and committee members only—so the fact that I am making this statement today in a room full of people, some of whom I know, but some who will from now on out just know me as “the girl who’s sick and talked at bargaining” (which is kind of my worst nightmare), hopefully imparts just how important our health insurance is to me, and why I volunteered to make this statement.

I have two illnesses: one makes me feel like garbage, but is mild. The other, which I was diagnosed with this fall (a diagnosis that cost approximately $13,000, by the way) has the potential to be expensive and life changing, as most chronic illnesses tend to be. I am certainly not the only union member in this particular boat. To me, the hardest thing about this disease is that the progression is variable. Right now things aren’t perfect, but they’re okay. If I could maintain where I’m at for the rest of my life I’d be thrilled—I could live to 85 without major complications. But statistically speaking, it’s more likely that things will go downhill slowly, or possibly very suddenly, and neither I nor my doctors have any control or  any real understanding over how, why, or when or even if, that might happen. So this is the uncertainty I live with. I am supposed to avoid stress and not get sick to prevent this disease from getting worse or flaring up—but I’m in grad school so that advice is only somewhat attainable.

What helps ease the uncertainty is knowing that, in the event of a downhill slide, I have our health insurance. When I visited UO as a prospective student I remember several older students telling me, “We have health insurance. And dental. REAL insurance.” At the time I thought, “That’s nice.” But now, two chronic illnesses later, that is absolutely the first “selling point” I raise with prospective students interested in UO. There has been a lot of talk about increasing stipends to make UO look competitive compared to other schools in order to attract graduate students, but increasing stipends at the expense of health insurance is not the answer—because our health insurance is how I sell folks on UO. That all other things aside, our lives, our health, our basic human rights to decent healthcare are valued. And I am grateful to the union and UO for that, every single day. I hope that, after this bargaining cycle, it will remain that way, or even be improved. Because the current health insurance works for me, but at this point in my disease progression I am not the sickest person in the union. I doubt I’m the sickest in this room.  There are union members living with day-to-day health challenges and expenses that I cannot fathom or speak to, and things like deductibles and out of pocket maximums, which might seem like arbitrary or annoying cutoffs for a healthy union member, are something those with chronic illnesses really have to worry about when considering their financial reality and their health.

Despite being thrown for a loop with this diagnosis, I am productive. I publish, I present at conferences, I participate in outreach. I have good teaching reviews and I genuinely care about my undergrads. All of these things are about developing my own skills, but I represent UO as an institution every time I engage in these activities. So in the end, it boils down to the fact that the quality of our life directly affects the quality of our work. I genuinely don’t know what I would do without the health insurance coverage we have. I’m certain that I would not be as fully functioning as I am now if I were also dealing with the stress of wondering about how to pay for my healthcare. I’m not sure I’d be seeing my PhD through, at all—I think I’d wash out. We are here because we want to learn, because we want to leave UO and go out into the world and put our skills to work and contribute. And I am asking for your support to make sure that even those of us facing unexpected, or sudden, or chronic, physical and mental health challenges can continue to remain productive and supported members of the UO community.