This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.
RaDonna Kuekelhan and her sister, Cathy O’Mara, have spent their whole lives in and around southeast Kansas, a largely rural area wedged up against Oklahoma and Missouri. Long pastoral stretches separate the region’s smattering of ghostly quiet small towns, the depopulated remains of a thriving industrial past. Cathy left the area briefly as a young woman, following a man to Florida, a decision she still regrets.
“I said, ‘God, if you let me get back to Kansas, I will never leave again,’” she recalls, laughing at herself but not really joking. She had missed the closeness of community in Kansas, the way it eases life’s challenges. When she arrived back home without a job, she walked into the factory where her mom worked and started on the line that same day. She’s still there 34 years later.
Closeness has defined Cathy and RaDonna’s relationship, too. The sisters have rarely been separated by more than a long drive. And that is fortunate, because over the past five years, Cathy has been RaDonna’s lifeline as her body has slowly and steadily failed.
RaDonna is dying. She’s a stout, white-haired 59-year-old who’s proudly willful, and she has cheated death twice before. Her first health crisis arrived back in the late 1990s. “It was end of August,” she says. “I went to a softball game and hollered for two hours and I lost my voice. Well, I just assumed it was from the hollering, but it didn’t get no better. So finally my sister told me, ‘You’re going to the doctor.’”
It turned out RaDonna had cancer of the larynx. She says she endured 35 rounds of radiation to beat it back. The treatment was challenging, but at least it was covered. Back then, she had a job making motors for small appliances at Emerson Electric, and it came with a health plan.
Within a couple of years of her recovery, however, Emerson shut down. After two decades in a secure job, RaDonna could now find only temp work, and most of that in factories over the border in Oklahoma. Like most temp work, hers didn’t come with insurance. That made things more complicated when her most recent health crisis began.
In early 2010, she developed severe acid reflux and struggled with fatigue. She was constantly short of breath. “I couldn’t keep nothing on my stomach,” she says now in her gasping whisper, the strongest voice she’s able to muster. “I thought I was having pneumonia.” Cathy scrambled to find a doctor who would see her uninsured sister.