Then she passed out while driving, just managing to coast to a stop in the median. When she woke up, she drove straight to the hospital, where a doctor told her in no uncertain terms that she needed a pacemaker, and she needed it soon.
A normal resting heart rate is 60 to 100 beats per minute. Hers hovered in the 40s while moving, dropping in the 20s when she slept. One day, the doctor warned, she wouldn’t wake up.
The pacemaker set off a whole series of complications, leading to panic attacks, 9-1-1 calls, and depression and suicidal ideation. Figuring she would never harm herself in or near her church, she started sleeping in her car in her church’s parking lot to keep herself from acting on those thoughts.
“I had this urge to do it, to end the suffering,” she said, “but I didn’t want to do it.”
Just as Gonzalez adjusted to life with a pacemaker, in 2017 she was diagnosed with uterine cancer, requiring a hysterectomy.
Life was almost back to normal in 2019, when her arms and legs started feeling weak. She wondered if it was the pacemaker, but a checkup found it fully functional. But the weakness continued to grow, and she found herself back where she’d been in 2014—now so weak she couldn’t even brush her daughter’s hair.
Doctors diagnosed Gonzalez with an aggressive autoimmune disorder. She was now dependent on regular infusions to stay mobile, with a Medicare co-pay around $900 a month. For Medicaid to cover that co-pay, she had to keep her income low—the gap between qualifying for Medicaid and making enough money to cover an extra $900 per month payment was not something she could cover, especially when picking up extra hours aggravated her flare ups. This is a known problem with American benefits programs, sometimes called the “benefits cliff.”
From 2014 to 2020, Gonzalez was formally diagnosed with 16 medical conditions and three mental health issues after having the pacemaker put in.
And all of that has meant a lot of explaining—and a lot of hard efforts at making herself heard.