That was the message Julian Esnart Wilson, a Cuban refugee living in the United States, was given by a congressional staffer he had reached out to for help.
A debilitating illness and lack of health care coverage were about to end his American Dream, less than a year after he had arrived in the country. I met Esnart last weekend, through a family connection, and interviewed him about his experience.
He told me he had not been blasé about his health problems when he decided to leave Cuba in July 2014. He had disclosed to the interviewer at the United States Interests Section in Havana that he had been diagnosed with cirrhosis in 2007, and had received a liver transplant. He made a point of raising concerns about his condition.
He asked how the US healthcare system worked, saying that in Cuba he received quarterly checkups and free medication. “The official looked at me with a sweet smile and said the medicine would be expensive. I asked if I could take my medicines with me and he said he needed to confer with the consul. He stepped out of the room.
When he returned, he took my fingerprints and congratulated me: ‘You’re going to the United States’”, Esnart told me. He never did get an answer to his question that day. When he arrived in Miami last summer, things didn’t get off to a good start. The day he landed, his wife told him she wanted to end their relationship.
On his first night in the US, Esnart found himself calling upon a friend of his sister, asking for a favor: Could he spend the night at her house? It wasn’t long before the medicine from Cuba ran out.
Medicaid covered new prescriptions in Florida, but he soon hit another roadblock: after having tapped out the kindness of acquaintances who let him sleep on their beds and couches, Esnart had to move to Port Arthur, Texas, the only other state where he knew someone who might take him in.
That was last November. When he went to refill his medications at a local pharmacy, he learned he wasn’t covered in Port Arthur. “The pharmacist told me every state’s system is totally independent; my insurance from Florida wouldn’t work in Texas.” Esnart applied for Medicaid in his new state, but was denied.
Esnart counted the days without medication. One, two, three, all the way to 43. His sister in Cuba managed to find someone to deliver one of his four pills from home, but that was only a temporary solution. “I knew it was a matter of time before my body would begin to collapse”, he explained to me.
How could a country with so many resources charge $5,000 or more per month for medications when impoverished Cuba dispensed them for free? Esnart didn’t give up easily. He wrote to the Red Cross, the local health department, President Obama, the first lady, Vice President Biden, a TV show host and three congressional representatives for help.
Dianna Kile, deputy director for Congressman Randy Weber, was the only one who replied.
She advised that he return to Cuba. Esnart could feel his body starting to deteriorate. He knew didn’t have a choice but to give up on his dreams if he wanted to live. Esnart doesn’t have the money to buy a ticket, so he has turned to a particularly American solution: crowdfunding. Using his cell phone, he set up a profile on Crowdrise, uploaded an overexposed selfie, set his fund raising goal at $1,500, and explained his situation: “I need money to buy a ticket back to Cuba …
I do not have money for my medication, every day I am I worse, I do not speak English, use the translator from the cell phone, I need to ask for help”. He is one of the millions in the US who are uninsured and whose lives risk being ruined as a result of inaccessible and unaffordable health care. Unlike many other immigrants, Esnart has a country to return to that provides free healthcare. He just needs to raise enough money to return home, before it’s too late.