Tracy Foster, a former nursing assistant, is a 40-year-old mother of two. She worked hard from the age of fifteen and raised her children on her own. She was born with a hereditary heart disease, and her health worsened when she was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2012.
Doctors found a mass in her bladder that was growing rapidly. At that time she still had health coverage from TennCare, so she was able to get treatment and return to work. She underwent chemotherapy and surgery to remove the mass, but the doctors warned that her cancer could return.
During her recovery, Tracy lost her TennCare. Her younger daughter became an adult, forcing Tracy off the program because she no longer had a minor child. Tracy began to depend on a free clinic for routine care and the ER when things grew more serious. Tracy continued to work as a nursing assistant until her declining health made it impossible to continue. She says, “I’ve worked since I was 15. I’ve paid my taxes. And I can’t get help.” She continues, “I’m afraid by the time something happens is it going to be too late. And it’s scary.”
Last year during an ER visit, doctors found new lesions in her bladder, blood in her urine, and swollen lymph nodes. Fearing that the cancer had returned, they advised her to see an oncologist. Without insurance, Tracy can’t afford a trip to the oncologist that she desperately needs. Tracy lives in constant pain, using Tylenol and a heating pad for some measure of comfort. Her grown daughter, Samantha, works full time as a nursing assistant, like her mother once did. She has ambitions to become a registered nurse, but she has given up her dreams of college for now to stay close to her mother and to support her emotionally and financially.
When Governor Haslam announced his Insure Tennessee plan in December, Tracy thought the plan might provide just the kind of health care help she needed. She and Samantha immediately began to research the program. They came across the Tennessee Justice Center and reached out for assistance. TJC’s senior client advocate contacted her immediately. The first step was to make sure Tracy was not eligible for any existing health care programs. TennCare covers people with cancer, but only certain kinds of cancer. Bladder cancer is not on that list. Without a steady income, she could not afford to buy health insurance on her own. TJC provided her with information about local low cost providers. TJC continues to advocate for Tracy and seek out doctors that are willing to help.
Tracy is now a powerful voice for the uninsured in Tennessee. At events supporting the passage of Insure Tennessee, Tracy advocates for herself and others who are uninsured. In spite of her discomfort and fear, she traveled the long miles from East Tennessee to Nashville during the legislative session, joining 800 other concerned citizens to show up and speak out. When legislators voted No, Tracy wept. Her grief-stricken face soon became the iconic image on the front page of the Tennessean. But she immediately pulled herself together. She walked out of the Senate committee meeting into a swarm of news reporters and photographers and spoke authentically and passionately. Tracy is a true warrior.
Tracy said, “Before this I had never spoken in public, and I’m very shy. But I have to stand up for myself and take my life back that has been taken from me. I’ve lost almost everything in my life. I really appreciate everything [TJC] is doing, and I truly love y’all and y’all are like family to me now.” For her incredible spirit and advocacy, TJC is honored to name Tracy a Mother of the Year.
Photography credit: John St. Clair