On Friday night, Representative Raul Labrador declared during a town hall meeting in Idaho that “nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.” The claim is demonstrably false, and Labrador quickly took to Facebook to defend himself in the face of the backlash. “I was trying to explain that all hospitals are required by law to treat patients in need of emergency care regardless of their ability to pay and that the Republican plan does not change that,” he wrote.
When Ezekiel Martin-Brunkhart saw the video clip of Labrador, he told Jezebel he nearly threw up. In January of last year, his husband and partner of 10 years, Chris Brunkhart, died at 47 from stage four colon cancer. Ezekiel believes the disease would have been caught had Brunkhart had insurance.
“It was a complete dismissal of who Chris was, and what we went through together,” he said. “It was awful.”
Zeke and Chris met online in 2005, when Zeke was 21. Chris was a photographer who mainly focused on snowboarding, carving out a name for himself in the ‘90s before the sport had taken off in the mainstream. They bonded over their mutual love of photography, and married one night in 2007, on a bridge near a waterfall outside their home in Portland, Oregon. Same-sex marriage would not be legally recognized in Oregon for another seven years, but from that night forward, they were a “solid unit,” Zeke said.
Despite being a successful freelance photographer, Chris went a long time without health insurance. Obamacare only went into full effect in 2014, and though Chris attempted to enroll, he was unable to navigate the complexities of the process. For all its benefits, Obamacare can be extremely cumbersome for freelancers to access, given the difficulty of proving one’s income and the infuriating inscrutability of the application. [Full disclosure: As a freelancer, I was without insurance for around six months at the end of 2016 and into 2017, despite spending multiple tear-filled hours on the phone nearly every day, in addition to sending virtually every document I could think of related to my finances. I can personally attest, with no exaggeration, that it was a complete and total nightmare.]
Chris ran into similar issues, Zeke told me, and eventually grew too disgruntled to continue. “He was never very good with paperwork,” he said. “In that way we were pretty complementary.” Frustrated and busy with other things, the process of enrolling eventually took a back seat.
Chris’s job shooting snowboarders was a physical one, and the ability to suppress aches and pains was something of an occupational requirement. Still, he’d been plagued for years by stomach problems—the sort that would come up during routine examinations, if he were the sort of person blessed with the ability to see a primary care doctor on a regular basis.
But the aches persisted, and one day in the summer of 2014, Chris told Zeke that he felt especially bad. Two days later, the two were at dinner, and Chris found that he couldn’t eat. He took a couple bites and threw up. As Zeke told me this story, his voice broke.
Chris had to pause working after that, but Zeke couldn’t take any time off. At that point, they were living in New York, where Zeke was studying at the New School. It was a few days after the dinner incident that Chris called him. “I think I’m having a heart attack,” he said. They rushed to Bellevue Hospital, where doctors ran a gamut of tests over the course of a month, unable to determine what was wrong.
“He slowly wasted away in our bed while I went to work and tried to keep it together, and I’d come home and find the bed was soaked with sweat,” Zeke said. “I’d just try to feed him applesauce, and watch him puke up bile every single day.” Eventually, a colonoscopy was performed, and the answer came shortly thereafter: Colon cancer, stage four.
It’s impossible to know when Chris’s cancer first developed, since it can move from a precancerous growth to stage four anywhere from six months and 10 years. “You live with a person, you know their aches and pains very well, and I can definitely say he was symptomatic for several years,” Zeke said.
Zeke knows it isn’t healthy to fixate on “what if’s.” But grief is a wicked beast, he said. “I keep coming back to the fact that the survivability of early-stage colon cancer, even mid-stage, is pretty fucking good. But once it metastasizes and spreads, it’s over.”
Chris’s cancer had spread from his colon to his liver, which was what ultimately made him so sick: It had doubled in size, squeezing his other organs and preventing him from eating. His chest pains, which he initially attributed to a heart attack, was due to the extreme stress his heart was under.
With the help of family and friends, Chris was able to enroll in Medicaid following his diagnosis. He began chemotherapy, and though by that time it was mostly palliative, it drastically improved his quality of life. Zeke and Chris officially wed in the summer of 2015. He continued taking pictures until a week before he died, in January of 2016.
One especially painful aspect of Labrador’s callous statement was that for around two years, Chris was actually a constituent of his, having lived for awhile in Sandpoint, Idaho for work.
“For me, it’s less about politics. It’s really, really personal,” Zeke said. “I know that the representative has a family, that he’s married, that he has kids. As a person that was married, nobody wants to be here. This is the fucking worst. I don’t understand it. I never will.”
Zeke is aware that Labrador put out a statement clarifying (though not apologizing) for his remarks. And he’s right—Chris did not die in the street because of a sudden medical emergency. But he shouldn’t have died when he did—and he wouldn’t have, Zeke believes, if he’d had health insurance.
On Thursday, the American Health Care Act narrowly passed the House, prompting lawmakers to guzzle beer in celebration. Their revelry was odd: Though the numbers aren’t firm, an estimated 17,000 people could potentially die in 2018 if the bill passes the Senate and is made law. By 2026, that number could swell to 29,0000 in that year alone.
Labrador, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, voted in favor of the act, saying in a statement that “the people of Idaho know Obamacare is a disaster and want it fully repealed. Since I was first elected to Congress, I’ve been working to repeal Obamacare and that includes opposing the first version of the American Health Care Act.”
For Zeke, Labrador’s comments on Friday only intensified his already incomprehensible grief.
“When I caught Labrador stating that no one has died for lack of access to health care, I kinda lost my shit,” he said. “I’ve just felt so helpless and so overwhelmed. I can’t not talk about what happened.”
“Everybody is going to die. I understand that,” he added. “But he shouldn’t have died so young.”