“We Couldn’t Possibly Be Poor”: How a Doctor Fell Into Poverty

“As we found ourselves choosing between rice, oatmeal, or potatoes for every meal, it occurred to us that being in poverty isn’t about how hard you work; it’s about how much money you make.”

The ER doctor looked grave as he pulled his stool close to the hospital bed where I was sitting with my husband and two small children. “I’m really sorry to have to tell you this. There’s no easy way.” As a family physician, I recognized those words: We’re trained to warn someone before we tell them bad news. Then I realized he was saying I’d had two strokes.

I can’t talk about federal nutrition assistance, or my first experience using it, without smiling.

In that one brief moment, my life completely changed.

I had no cognitive problems and was able to flawlessly inject a steroid into a patient’s knee just days after my strokes, but I struggled with dizziness and fatigue. Instead of taking my children on play dates to the zoo, I needed to sleep 18 hours a day and would get dizzy while driving. I couldn’t change a diaper and didn’t have the stamina to fix a meal. My husband became my caretaker as well as the primary parent for our children.

I had spent my time after residency having babies, not getting rich. My husband had worked to support me through school. He went to college during my residency. When we started a family, it made financial sense for him to stay home and care for our kids while I worked. Now I didn’t have the energy to drive to work, much less see enough patients to support my family and my own mounting medical costs.

I’d recently opened a “hobby” practice with no staff and low overhead to meet the medical needs of area families who didn’t have access to care. I was able to keep working there as I recovered and gained stamina. We knew that in the long run this would be what got our family out of poverty, but initially it didn’t provide enough income for us to scrape by.

It took a couple of months for us to realize our true situation. We’re both educated. We couldn’t possibly be “poor” or need “assistance.” But as we found ourselves choosing between rice, oatmeal, or potatoes for every meal, it occurred to us that being in poverty isn’t about how hard you work; it’s about how much money you make.

We’re both educated. We couldn’t possibly be “poor” or need “assistance.”

We applied for assistance and, three months after my strokes, I received a phone call notifying me that our family qualified for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), i.e., food stamps. I was so excited! “We’ll have food,” I thought. “Good food! And medical care!” The average person receives SNAP benefits for less than a year; we were off SNAP in 18 months. Many people with strokes end up completely disabled, so I know we are blessed.

People often assume that our first shopping trip would have been demeaning or sad to me. On the contrary, I can’t talk about federal nutrition assistance, or my first experience using it, without smiling.

“I have a surprise!” I announced to my son. “We’re going to go buy a lot of food!”

He squealed. “Can we get a watermelon?”

“Yes!” I replied with delight. “Yes, whatever you want!” He also demanded cucumbers, apples, and chocolate ice cream.

Walking through the store and loading food into the cart seemed surreal to me. Cheap food is brown. Our cart was filled with a rainbow of foods, many of which my baby daughter had never eaten before. She may not have understood, but she knew the rest of us were excited. She giggled as she hugged the cucumbers to her chest. The checker smiled and asked if we were celebrating someone’s birthday.

“No,” I replied. We’re excited to have food.”