When he took the mic that night, Joel Bulger faced a roomful of smiling strangers. The folks had crowded into the Mark Twain House & Museum for a fundraiser — for Bulger, who works in maintenance and security at the museum, and who earlier this year was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
What do you say to people you haven't met who are doing you a favor? Bulger, whose whole family is musical, decided to sing.
Earlier this year, when word got around that Bulger was sick, his niece, Beth Miller, started a GoFundMe web page to help pay for treatment insurance wouldn't cover. Miller is executive director at Creative Education Foundation in Massachusetts. She once worked at the museum. Jacques Lamarre, the playwright and another former colleague, came up with a fundraiser that involved journalists performing with Sea Tea Improv for a night of comedy. Julia Pistell, who also once worked at the museum, is managing director of Sea Tea, a comedy troupe.
Bulger is the kind of guy who, when he was 25 and Miller's father was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor that eventually killed him, moved into her house to help. Word of his selflessness got around, and then word went out on social media for the Sept. 13 event.
And so we have come to this. There are multiple independent fundraising websites, and GoFundMe alone boasts that it has raised $4 billion for people in need. It claims to be the No. 1 website for fundraising to battle lymphoma. Scroll through the website the next time you're feeling sorry for yourself.
But do you see the problem here? People must raise money so they can afford life-saving medication and treatment. One of Bulger's anti-nausea pills costs roughly what he brings home in a week. His wife Debbie developed heart issues after his diagnosis. He's facing treatments that are studded with co-pays he can't afford. Although he continues to work at the Mark Twain House, his chemo has weakened him enough that he had to give up his multiple side jobs, which could help pay for some of all of this.
Here's where irony gets ugly. A few hours before the fundraiser, Sens. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, and Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, visited the graveyard of dead legislation, and dug up a zombie of a health care bill meant — once again — to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which has insured millions of Americans. The Graham-Cassidy zombie bill was roundly dismissed by everyone from the American Medical Association, Blue Cross Blue Shield, the American public and John McCain, who as a U.S. senator is the recipient of pretty fantastic medical treatment for a serious brain tumor. The Kaiser Family Foundation called it the Republicans' "most radical" health care bill yet. The USC-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy project said that if Graham-Cassidy passed, 15 million Americans would lose their health care coverage by 2019, with a potential spike to 32 million 10 years.
Lacking the support of McCain and others, on Tuesday the Republicans decided not to have a vote on the bill. However, until someone drives a stake through the notion that there is a quick-and-dirty fix to our health care system — or until people elect legislators who will take seriously the health of their constituents — it's hard to feel safe.
Meanwhile, people like Bulger deal with life and death issues through the largesse of strangers. The evening of the bill's introduction, the improv troupe led some old journalism warhorses through their paces. Said Pistell, "Sea Tea Improv's job is to bring laughter into Hartford — most important, at personally and politically challenging times."
And then it was Bulger's turn and he didn't want to start crying, so he took a deep breath and set his eyes on a young man in the back of the room. But pretty soon, the guy — Bulger never got his name — was crying along with everyone else.
Bulger got through the song, anyway. While he sang Rod Stewart's song "Mandolin Wind," people stuffed money into Miller's pockets. Online, a cousin who lives in New Zealand donated with a note: "Get social medicine, you bozos!" Indeed.
Until we figure out our health care, here's one small thing you can do. Bulger's GoFundMe is online at gofundme.com/joelbulgercancerfund. He's still shy a few thousand.
Susan Campbell teaches at the University of New Haven. She is the author of "Dating Jesus: Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl" and "Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker." Her email address is email@example.com.