by Meg White
Originally, Midge and Dan Hough only went to Rep. Dan Lipinski's town hall meeting on Nov. 14 to thank him. As a somewhat conservative Democrat representing a blue-collar district in south Chicago, Lipinski had been cautious about supporting healthcare reform efforts in the House, but ultimately came out in support of the bill.
"He has a hard time there because he has these people to deal with," Midge said of Lipinski. "We went there to thank him."
Little did Midge know, it would be her and her husband having to deal with the anger of the town hall attendees. At the town hall meeting, Lipinski asked Midge to tell the heart-wrenching story of her daughter-in-law Jenny. Jenny was a healthy 24-year-old pregnant mother this summer. Now she was dead, along with her unborn child, both symbols of the failure of our country's healthcare system.
But when Midge told the story to the people gathered at the town hall meeting, she was jeered, mocked and laughed at. They didn't believe her, or didn't care.
Midge still told Jenny's story, and her bravery shines in a YouTube video of the event, which now clocks in at well over 100,000 views and functions as a symbol of what the tea party movement has become.
Telling Jenny's story
When Jenny was about seven months pregnant, she came down with severe cold/flu symptoms. Because she didn't have healthcare insurance, her husband Sean brought her to a hospital emergency room. After four hours of waiting to be seen, they told Jenny she had a cold and sent her away with a couple of prescriptions.
The next morning she was much worse, so they went to a different emergency room. Worried about being turned away, Sean lied about their insurance situation and said they forgot their card. By that night, Jenny was in an intensive care unit [ICU], diagnosed with double pneumonia, respiratory failure and septic shock.
Midge said that the medical staff at the second hospital told her there is no way Jenny could have deteriorated to such a degree in a mere 24 hours. In their cursory exam of Jenny the day before, the first hospital must have missed something.
Jenny spent the next 55 days on a respirator. She suffered through a heart attack, two collapsed lungs, partial paralysis, and the delivery of a stillborn daughter. Yet she still fought to survive, trying to talk and smile and get better. She died on Aug. 26, 2009.
Telling this story of horrifying loss was hard enough for Midge, but she was mostly astonished by the group's total lack of compassion:
"How they could not know I was devastated, I'll never know."
Enter the Internet
But despite the hurtful jeering, she stayed through the whole 3-hour town hall meeting. Little did she know that this was just the beginning of the backlash.
The organizer of a splinter group called the Chicago Tea Party Patriots, Catherina Wojtowicz, insisted that the story was a fake, calling the couple "Obama operatives" in an e-mail. Even after a local paper verified Jenny's story, she hounded the Houghs with hateful e-mails and insisted that their story was an "isolated incident" that shouldn't have any bearing on the healthcare debate.
Midge said she "tried to appeal to her in those ugly, ugly e-mails."
"Could she understand that we were grieving?" Midge recalled asking in one e-mail exchange with Wojtowicz. "She laughed in the e-mail. She said she didn't think they were hard enough on me" at the Lipinski town hall meeting.
After Keith Olbermann featured Catherina Wojtowicz as his "Worst Person" in a regular segment of his show Countdown, the segment showed up on the Tea Party Patriots' Web site under the headline "Catherina Wojtowicz Earns Title."
"That actually sickens my stomach," Midge said when she heard about the promotion of the video. In her next breath, however, she said she wasn't exactly surprised.
"I've never seen so much hate in one room in my whole life," she said. Wistfully, she added, "I wish that they had Jenny's memorial video up there."
Though these fringe tea party activists are using Jenny's story to promote themselves, it doesn't make the Houghs second-guess their decision to bring attention to them. They say they're glad that they can show "people on the fence" about healthcare just how "radical" and "unhinged" the tea party groups can be.
"If my hurting accomplishes that, I'm OK with it," Midge said.
Though the Internet has brought threatening e-mails, angry comments and viewers flagging their videos about Jenny as "fake" on YouTube, it has also rallied support for the Houghs. Along with the education and advocacy efforts of the Illinois Campaign for Better Health Care and publicity for Jenny's story provided by Women's International News, Midge spoke of the "angels on Twitter" who have helped connect them to others active in the healthcare reform effort.
Furthermore, the same anonymity that allows hateful comments to spew forth more easily also provided the Houghs with their own silent partner. Someone anonymously created a Web site at CatherinaWojtowicz.com that highlights how the Tea Party Patriots' spokesperson has attacked the Houghs and others who don't share her view of reality. The site has no proprietary information, except that the owner is offering the URL up for auction, with the proceeds of the URL sale destined for the National Association of Free Clinics.
The Houghs say they have no idea who the mysterious Web developer is, but Midge said she's thankful and would "love to shake their hand."
The insurance struggle continues
Even before Jenny got sick, the Houghs were working to get her covered.
"We tried everything," Midge said, but no insurance company would cover Jenny's prenatal care. "She had a preexisting condition: pregnancy."
The Houghs have been asked in incredulous tones why they didn't try to get Jenny onto Medicaid, the federal health insurance option for low-income people. The thing is they did. And Jenny did eventually get approved for coverage under Medicaid. All throughout their search for insurance, the Houghs were told that it would take four to six months to get Jenny covered by Medicaid. But things changed once she was hospitalized.
"Once she was in the ICU and being treated, they were able to fast-track the Medicaid," Dan said. It took hospital administrators less than a month to get Jenny covered. But by then it was too late.
In the fallout after Jenny's death, the Houghs have had to deal with the same nightmare once again, only this time it's their son in the hospital bed. Immediately after Jenny was taken off of life support, Sean was taken to another hospital to be treated for severe depression. Caring for his needs with medication, hospitalization and grief counseling has taken a toll. And still, he's uninsured, going through that same four-to-six-month gauntlet that Jenny had to traverse on her way to being covered by Medicaid.
"It hasn't ended for us, unfortunately," Midge said. "It shatters the family."
Reading the tea leaves
The Houghs are seeing the tea parties splinter right before their eyes. After the media got a hold of the story, the Illinois chapter of the national tea party organization replaced their Web site with a statement reading in part that they find the actions of Wojtowicz and her ilk "irresponsible, gross in nature and completely uncalled for. While the Tax Day Tea Party of Chicago certainly disagrees politically with Dan and Midge Hough on the healthcare debate, we in no way wish to act malicious towards the family and we send our deepest sympathies to them for their loss." The statement goes on to disavow any connection with Wojtowicz's Tea Party Patriots.
"She's such a despicable person that she's not affiliated with them any more," Midge said of Wojtowicz. Despite this, the Houghs aren't fooled into thinking the tea party movement will disappear anytime soon, healthcare reform or no.
"There's such an ugliness right now in this country," Midge said. "It's not just hate for the subject [of healthcare]; it's hate for our president... Whatever the issue is, [the tea parties] are going to be around."
Dan sees the movement as an "outgrowth of the 24-hour news cycle," extending back to the rise of right-wing radio in the 1990s. Living in Chicago, Dan sees his fair share of disagreement -- one need look no farther than the Cubs/White Sox divide for a friendly fracas.
"In any other environment... we have a lot of common experiences," Dan said. "But they all get buried because of this rhetoric."
"I don't know where it's going," Midge said. "The country is divided."
Refocusing the debate
While the Houghs do see their effort to expose Wojtowicz and tea party extremists as a way to inform independents and moderates about the true motivations of the anti-reform groups, they know there's no convincing those who have already decided against changes to the healthcare system.
"There's nothing you can do to change that person's mind," Midge said. "It's just hate."
However, she believes that focusing attention on the opposition isn't ultimately helpful anyway.
"I just want people to take the emphasis off this hateful person," Midge said, referring to Wojtowicz. Though it's "too late for Jen," Midge hopes to bring attention to the millions of Americans in her position and "put the focus back where it belongs, and that's on the people who are suffering. I want them to think about those people."
She tells Jenny's story not only to bring attention to the suffering, but to remind people how easily they could find themselves in her shoes.
"It hits you when you'd never expect it," Midge said. "It could happen to anyone."