Statement to the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development of the Massachusetts House of Representatives
March 25, 2008

My name is Gail Burns and I am a law-abiding, home-owning, tax-paying resident of Williamstown, Massachusetts. I am a high school and college graduate. I have been married for 26 years to my one and only husband and we are the parents of two sons, both currently in college. I work as a church secretary and a theatre critic. I lead an active, happy life in the beautiful Berkshires and am blessed with lots of friends. I have full health insurance through my husband’s employer.

I suffered from increasingly debilitating “female problems” common to women of all races, shapes, and sizes in their forties and fifties. By the middle of last summer I realized that the right solution for me was to have a hysterectomy. I told my OB-GYN of my decision, and she agreed with me, but she is not a surgeon so she had to present my case to the obstetric surgeons in the local medical community.

In February of 2005 this medical community had announced publicly their decision not to admit patients they considered “morbidly obese.” This is decided solely on the basis of a number on the scale, not an examination of the patient. I was denied surgery.

Medical science and technology are changing rapidly all the time. Hospitals routinely upgrade equipment and retrain staff. Refusing to invest in equipment that enables them to care for fat patients is a deliberately discriminatory act. And it is a legal one.

Thankfully, my OB/GYN put me in touch with an excellent surgeon who agreed to operate on me. Unfortunately I had to travel an hour each way to see him – he practiced in Albany, New York, and there is no public transportation available – which took its toll on the family budget in terms of additional gas and driving expenses and the amount of unpaid time I had to take off from work for my appointments, another clear case of discrimination because a person who weighed less would have been treated locally.

I want to make it clear that I did not have cancer. None of my organs was technically diseased and the troublesome one was my uterus. But the only surgery I was offered was a Radical Hysterectomy, involving the removal of my uterus, my ovaries, my cervix, and some associated lymph nodes. I objected. To put it bluntly, removing a woman’s ovaries is medically analogous to removing a man’s testicles.

But I could tell that I was not in a position to argue. During the month before my surgery, I did research and came up with sound medical arguments to support my position. I called my OB/GYN, explained the situation with the surgeon and presented my arguments, with which she agreed, but she reminded me how difficult it had been for me to find a doctor and hospital willing to treat me, if anything were to go wrong with my ovaries in the future, I might not be so lucky again.

Lucky. Receiving necessary health care should not have anything to do with luck. But the message was very clear – to press the issue would jeopardize any chance I had of being operated on.

So I had perfectly healthy organs removed against my wishes because I had no other choice and no legal recourse. And I live with the knowledge that I will probably be denied treatment for future medical problems.

The good news is that my surgery and recovery went very smoothly. I had a laparoscopically assisted vaginal hysterectomy, cervicectomy, and oopherectomy, performed using the Da Vinci Robotic Surgical System so I had five abdominal “poke holes” rather than one large incision. I was not aware that caring for me required that hospital to make any unusual additional financial investment in equipment or staffing. I was up and walking within hours of the surgery and discharged the following day. I was able to return to work full-time four weeks after the surgery. Physical therapy for my pelvic floor has made a world of difference in my overall health and well-being. In January I started taking belly dance classes! This surgery made a dramatic improvement to my health and the quality of my life, and there was no medical reason why it should have been denied to me.

The message to fat people is very clear – we are not worth it. Our lives and health are not as valuable as those of thin people. The point of health care is health, and care, and I was told that I was worthy of neither. I felt disposable and worthless. I plunged into a dark, suicidal depression. One night watching the evening news I heard how a murderer, injured by police gunfire, was rushed to the hospital and treated, and I realized that the medical community considered my life of less value than that of a violent criminal.

This cannot continue to be legal. It could be your parent, your spouse, your sibling, your child who is denied medical treatment and made to suffer not only from physical pain but from the unshakable knowledge that their lives are considered worthless by the medical community and by their legislature which failed to grant them the same rights and protections that other minorities have. It used to be legal for hospitals to deny black people treatment because of their race, and we changed that through legislation because we recognized the right of all people to have access to health care. The time has come to act again.

Massachusetts now requires all its citizens to have health insurance, but my experience proves that, unless legislation like this is passed, health insurance is no guarantee of health care. The health insurance debacle in this country is well beyond the scope of Representative Rushing’s bill, but it can prevent hatred and prejudice from denying fat people health care. Passing this bill will literally save lives.

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