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Meanwhile, Tashi dreamed of being a forensic anthropologist, just like her hero, Dana Scully of The X-Files. But she'd temporarily dropped out of ASU to help put Kevin through school. (He was closer to finishing; after he had his degree, he could help her, or so they reasoned before the cancer struck.) She had a full-time job — but her hours were cut to part-time, right around the same time that Kevin lost his beloved internship and was forced to make ends meet with jobs at Circle K and the Census.
Catastrophe struck at the worst possible time. Since neither had college degrees nor full-time jobs, neither had insurance. And so, through no fault of their own, Kevin's cancer ended up plunging the pair into the hell of poverty and all its attendant government programs.
The programs have been a blessing. At the emergency room in October, Kevin was signed up for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, or AHCCCS, the state's publicly funded health plan. Since the first two surgeries easily ran into the six figures, not counting the hospital stay, that was essential to keeping him alive.
But keeping him enrolled has proved to be something of a full-time job.
In January, AHCCCS administrators sent Kevin and Tashi clumsily worded letters, saying they were both about to be kicked off.
Kevin desperately needed to stay on. He was in the midst of his chemo cycle. Without insurance, his medication alone cost $8,227 — a month. And other than Tashi's hourly wages at her part-time job, the couple's only income came from Kevin's Social Security check.
Yet AHCCCS determined that, in the preceding month, Kevin and Tashi had notched $612.25 in earnings. The monthly limit for AHCCCS users? $608 a month.
Tashi and Kevin were $4.25 over the limit.
The whole thing was galling — not just because $612 a month is nothing, and not just because that $4.25 seemed so arbitrary. At that point, health insurance was literally the only thing keeping Kevin alive.
Tashi spent hours pleading with caseworkers. She called her congressman, her city councilman, and the governor. She even called Nancy Pelosi. "We were told by one person to do one thing — by someone else to do another," she says. "There'd be all these paperwork hoops. We'd send things in three times. They'd say, 'We never got that. You're lying.' Or, 'It's processing.' We'd call back a week later. 'It's processing.' The week after that? 'We never got it. You're lying.'"
By spring, AHCCCS administrators relented and put Kevin back on the program. But his wife wasn't so lucky. AHCCCS insists on treating the couple as individuals. And Tashi doesn't qualify, they say, unless she can show that her medical bills have been at a certain level for the three previous months.
But she can't spend money she doesn't have: Tashi stopped taking various medications when she was kicked off AHCCCS.
Tashi quit her job in May. While serving as Kevin's caregiver, it was simply too much.
But, she admits, there's another benefit. If she's unemployed, their income will come entirely from Social Security and food stamps. At that point, maybe AHCCCS will think they're desperate enough.
"I don't want to say they're trying to kill people, but they're trying to kill people," Tashi says, exhausted.
Chemo has been tough, even in maintenance doses. Kevin talks about green banana days: "When you don't feel like you're going to last long enough to buy green bananas at the grocery store," Tashi explains. You have to buy the ones that are already ripe, or you may not be around long enough to eat them.
And though Kevin can joke all he wants about his low sperm count, when things turn serious, they both admit they're mourning the improbability of having a future together.
"The idea of getting a life partner — to grow together, with your career and your lives . . ." Tashi says, trailing off. "Eventually having kids, and nieces and nephews, and grandkids. How do I put this? There are things I didn't know I wanted until I had almost no possibility of getting them."
"Kids," Kevin says quietly. "Kids is a big one."
When they look on the bright side, they admit they have new appreciation for each other these days. Just having the old Kevin back fills Tashi with delight. "I have him back, and it's his personality," she marvels. "I have to make the most of this."
But the cancer is omnipresent. They both talk about death casually, without sentimentality. It's never far from their thoughts.
Kevin has been exploring religion. When a Jehovah's Witness knocked at the door earlier this summer, the two ended up becoming friends. They bonded over a shared love of astronomy, but that's not all. Kevin is looking for answers. He's reading about Taoism, Buddhism, and the Christianity that his parents held nominally. He's trying to get ready for the end.
"I don't see death as something to be afraid of," he says. "I'm not eager to bring it closer — but I'm not going to shy from it if it comes for me."