Last week, President Obama, speaking at a Democratic National Committee fundraising event, mentioned a woman named Melanie Shouse. This is what he said:
I got a letter — I got a note today from one of my staff — they forwarded it to me — from a woman in St. Louis who had been part of our campaign, very active, who had passed away from breast cancer. She didn’t have insurance. She couldn’t afford it, so she had put off having the kind of exams that she needed. And she had fought a tough battle for four years. All through the campaign she was fighting it, but finally she succumbed to it. And she insisted she’s going to be buried in an Obama t-shirt.
But think about this: She was fighting that whole time not just to get me elected, not even to get herself health insurance, but because she understood that there were others coming behind her who were going to find themselves in the same situation and she didn’t want somebody else going through that same thing. How can I say to her, “You know what? We’re giving up”? How can I say to her family, “This is too hard”? How can Democrats on the Hill say, “This is politically too risky”? How can Republicans on the Hill say, “We’re better off just blocking anything from happening”?
I knew Melanie. I live in St. Louis. I met her when I attended my first volunteer meeting for the Obama campaign. Melanie was a slight woman, with cropped hair that was too gray for her young face. At the time that I met her, from the moment you saw her, you could tell she was sick. She was obviously frail. Yet this tiny, frail woman who had been aged beyond her years by sickness and pain was nonetheless one of those rare people who positively vibrate with energy at all times. Melanie radiated enough determination to ignite the instant attention of anyone in a room with her. You didn’t forget Melanie, once you’d met her. Melanie Shouse made an impression.
I don’t know whether he knows it, but President Obama owes Melanie Shouse. Big time. Melanie started a Barack Obama campaign volunteer group in my part of St. Louis County before there was an Obama campaign office here. She did it on her own, because the official state campaign administration was too slow. She did it because she thought Barack Obama was our country’s best hope for achieving real health insurance reform.
While Missouri for Obama was still trying to line up a reliable team of field organizers and figure out how to install internet at extra phone lines at the local union hall, Melanie Shouse was holding pro-Obama meetings in living rooms and parks and coffee shops and teaching her friends and neighbors how to register people to vote. After years of hacking through medical insurance red tape, Melanie wasn’t one to wait around for someone else to get organized.
So when the state campaign officials finally got themselves straightened out enough to open an office in my neighborhood, Melanie’s volunteers, already partially trained and fully enthusiastic, were among the first to walk in the door. Melanie already had an email list of potential volunteers. Melanie had phone numbers. Melanie had a plan.
And why did she do all this work? It wasn’t to save herself from cancer. Melanie’s health insurance problems had prevented her from seeking immediate care the day she first noticed a lump in her breast.
When Melanie’s breast cancer was finally diagnosed, it was already Stage Four. After her diagnosis — delayed because the only insurance policy she could afford for herself as a small business owner was a catastrophic care policy with a $5,000 deductible — her insurance company denied her necessary treatment on multiple occasions. Her prognosis was grim.
Long before the Obama campaign gathered steam, Melanie Shouse knew she was dying.
She didn’t work so hard on his campaign because she wanted health care reform for herself.
She did it because she didn’t want anyone else to have to go through what she already had.
After Obama won the election, Melanie kept fighting. She had accounts on Organizing for America, Change.org, The Huffington Post, and Facebook that she used to share information about health insurance problems, refute falsehoods about health care reform legislation, promote health care reform rallies and pass on petitions and lobby legislators. She volunteered for the local chapter of MoveOn.org, speaking at vigils and rallies, confident and inspiring in front of large crowds, always showing up, no matter how sick she felt or how tired she was.
Melanie knew she was dying. She could have spent the last few years of her life focusing on her dream of growing her small business, spending as much time as she could with her family, or reconnecting with old friends.
But instead she spent almost every spare moment in the last few years of her life trying to change her country for the better, so that other women like her would not have to face death from a treatable, curable disease simply because they could not afford to pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for decent medical care.
I’m happy that President Obama mentioned Melanie in his speech. I hope he meant every word he said. If he is to succeed in changing the country for the better, he must not forget her. The Democratic National Committee, and Democrats in Congress, and progressive political activists must not forget her. We must not forget her
It was hope like Melanie’s hope — undying hope in the face of adversity, unselfish hope, not just for our individual selves, but for a better future for all Americans, that Barack Obama tapped into during his campaign to get elected against long odds. Melanie never lost her hope. And in refusing to lose hope, she left us all a gift that should not be refused.
The President, and the Democrats in Congress, must not forget that they did not win the 2008 election.
People like Melanie Shouse won that election. And they deserve nothing less than for the government they elected to fighttooth and nail for what people like Melanie are owed — the better American future they envisioned for us all.
by Jaelithe Judy