Midge Hough: A Portrait of A Reluctant Activist

I met Midge Hough in the most modern of ways, on a Facebook thread. Midge was involved in an increasingly heated discussion, amongst progressives, about Obama’s lame duck tax compromise with Republicans that traded an extension of the Bush tax cuts for a long-term extension of unemployment benefits (among other things). Posters on the thread were mad as hell. But Midge kept defending the decision by looking at the bigger picture. She knew what would happen to those unemployed folks if the President didn’t make this deal. I chimed in on the thread and took her side immediately. Shortly after, I requested her friendship on Facebook. By the morning, I had written an article based around the idea of the back and forth from the night before and my fervent belief that Obama was getting the short end from liberals. I passed it along to Midge who pushed it with all her might on her own page.

I guess you could say we liked each other right away.

Of course, this was merely a first impression. But as Midge and I continued our increasingly frequent correspondence, she began to open up and tell me her story. We all have a story, but the tale of how Midge went from a modestly active progressive to that of a fervent activist is both a tragic and extraordinary one.

This is the road that she was at first forced to take, but has now learned to embrace.

It began with the pregnancy of her daughter-in-law, Jenny Fritts.

Like many young couples during the financial downturn, Jenny and her husband were facing hard times. They had both lost their jobs and one could argue the last thing the two of them needed was the additional burden that having another child creates (they already had a 2 year old girl). They did not plan to get pregnant, but pregnant they became and now had a decision to make.

It wasn’t a tough one. They decided to keep the baby and face the potentially sobering challenges ahead…together. It was a brave choice, made with realism and a full understanding of their less than ideal circumstances.

They wanted this baby.

During her third trimester, Jenny began to feel ill. Lacking any health insurance, Jenny was taken to the ER, diagnosed with a ‘cold’ and exhaustion and then treated (poorly) and sent home. It is a practice known as ‘dumping’: a sad, often unspoken, policy which doctors follow when seeing someone with a potentially expensive condition who does not appear to have the means to pay. The minimum amount of service is provided and maybe a ‘best of luck’ on the way out the door.

Jenny did not have the best of luck.

Less than 24 hours after being told she had a ‘cold,’ Jenny was back in the ER with a diagnosis of double pneumonia, septic shock, and respiratory failure, this time at a different hospital. She would soon be placed on life support.

She spent exactly 55 days at this largely inadequately resourced non-profit hospital. In that time she developed blood clots, a brain bleed, followed by a stroke and a heart attack. During the majority of this time Jenny was not unconscious, she knew exactly what was happening to her; think of that. At one point, her condition deteriorated so much that she could not be laid flat to be transported from one room to another simply for tests; every time they tried, she would code.

The Houghs tried, multiple times, to move Jenny to a more advanced hospital. However, none would accept the transfer. They had waited for 52 days for the hospital to get a portable respirator that would breathe for her so she could be transported to undergo further testing. By the time it arrived,  it was too late; 3 days later, on August 26, 2009, Jenny died.

Her baby girl was delivered stillborn by induced labor on day 32. The stress on her mother was more than she could bear. The child had died inside of her 10 days earlier, when Jenny had her heart attack. The doctors were forced to wait the extra week and a half, before delivery, to allow Jenny to recover (as much as possible) from her heart trauma. Midge and her son were able to hold the tiny little girl before committing her to memory.

For 32 days this courageous young woman fought to bring her child into the world despite inadequate care and facilities. For 23 more days she clung to life in the face of any sensible prediction. After all, she had another child to come home to. She suffered in ways that are unimaginable. There are no appropriate metaphors to describe what Jenny and her family went through. How could Hell be worse than this?

To watch this sweet young girl go from a healthy mother to be to that of a helpless witness to her own, and her baby’s, demise is unconscionable. Now, imagine that all you could do was watch. What must that have been like? Do any of us want to consider the horror of this? Would we ever want to walk a foot, let alone a mile, in the shoes of the Houghs? I sure as hell don’t.

For quite a while, Midge felt lost and in a haze. She attended a candlelight vigil in Grant Park for the fight to reform health care one week after Jenny’s death. The photo at the beginning of the article is from that day. The home-made poster she was holding of Jenny was created to give the cost of our health care system a human face. Despite the efforts of many a reporter to get a quote from her, Midge was not yet strong enough to speak.

She began to write about her experience on Facebook, she found it therapeutic. The support she received from the virtual community–from people she had never met–encouraged her. One week later she found her voice at a protest against Big Insurance (BCBS) in downtown Chicago. There, she gave her first interviews; action groups asked for pro-reform videos, which she completed the following week. She then hit every media outlet that was willing to make itself available to her.

Through this devastating ordeal, she had found purpose.

She spoke with Illinois Governor, Pat Quinn, and the senior Senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin; she was a featured guest on the “Ed Show” and even Al-Jazeera. Her story had reached beyond the personal and became a heartrending national example of our failed health care system. The video became so popular on YouTube that it temporarily crashed the site.

She also began to speak at rallies. Despite her own nervousness over talking in front of a large crowd, Midge found that once she began to speak, “It just takes you.”

Her reception at these events was not always cordial. At one town hall in Oak Lawn, Illinois, she was the guest speaker of Democratic Congressman, Dan Lipinski (whom she came to thank for his support of HCR, but would ironically vote ‘no’ when the measure came to the House floor). Things turned grim after she took the microphone; the Tea Party had arrived. Here is what happened:

After all she had been through, Midge had become a target, in particular, by a satellite division of the Tea Party known as The Chicago Tea Party Patriots. They ridiculed her story, accused her of making it up, and of lying about the deaths of her daughter-in-law and her grandchild. The story became so well-known for its lack of decency, that it actually made Keith Olbermann’s ‘Worst Persons in the World’ segment on Countdown. The video of Keith defending the Houghs was nearly as well-viewed as the piece from The Ed Show.

What fascinates me here is, not just the willingness of these ‘patriots’ to disparage and, quite honestly, make shit up about a woman who had suffered a tremendous loss, but the fact that they simply skirted over the simple truth that Jenny chose NOT to have an abortion even though it could have been argued as being a more ‘practical’ decision. Jenny chose life, and in a terrible twist of fate, she received the opposite. You would think that Tea Party Patriots would applaud such a decision as it fits into their own ideology. But the truth is, they don’t give a shit about people like Jenny. The unborn child? Maybe. The mother and the family of said child? Not at all. But who brings that unborn child into the world? Is it not the mother, and the doctors and nurses in the health care system? A system that didn’t just kill Jenny, but her daughter too.

Despite this sort of treatment from the Chicago wing of the Tea Party Patriots, Midge soldiered on.

She fought hard for the Health Care Reform Bill. She continued to speak at rallies and town halls regardless of the lack of respect shown to her by some of the attendees. Jenny’s story was read by Durbin on the Senate floor during the health care battle and again later by Illinois Congresswoman, Jan Schakowsky, on the floor of the House after the bill was passed.

She created an activist website, Progressive Citizens for America. Her husband also created a site to directly respond to the dishonesty of the Tea Party Patriots as well. She didn’t stop; not when it was brutally hard, and not when it would have been much easier to do so. Like Jenny, she didn’t stop.

When the Affordable Care Act was finally signed into law by President Obama on March 23, 2010 Midge, like many progressives, found it to be a bittersweet experience. She would have loved Medicare for everyone, but didn’t believe that it was possible. She was more than a little disappointed about the lack of a public option. But she believed what was passed was better than what we had before, and could be built upon. However, unlike most progressives (or almost anyone else for that matter), she had experienced a personal tragedy extraordinarily rare and indicative of the porous state of health care in this country. As Midge pointed out to me, this bill would have saved Jenny’s life from the pitfalls of living with the pre-existing condition known as pregnancy; and that was good enough for now.

As she said, “People think they know what they would do. But once you enter the maze (of the health care system), you have no idea.”

Midge knows this better than anyone I have ever met. Her life was forever changed by those 55 days. Her husband stands with her, her son battles a debilitating depression, there is a little girl who will never know her mother, and another who never knew life outside of the womb. None of this ended with Jenny’s death. It is a scar and a haunt that will dog these good people for the rest of their lives.

But Midge will not stop. She continues to fight for advancements to the way we treat the sick and the elderly in this country. She fights for the rights of organized labor, the middle class, and the less fortunate. She gives a voice to the voiceless.

She is my friend and I am all the better for it.

Midge told me that she still feels raw when she thinks of another young girl facing what Jenny went through. As she put it, “I do it all in her name.”

I would disagree with her slightly, she does it in all of our names. Even the ones she will never know.

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Author: David Phillips