As a chaplain at Lurie Children’s Hospital in downtown Chicago, and a resident of Chicago's Southside Woodlawn community, Ashley-Anne Masters sees tangible evidence of one of the nation’s most critical challenges every day at work. Masters says patient anxieties over access to health care transcend socioeconomic divides inside stark waiting rooms.
“Every day I would see families who were terrified about how they could pay for their child’s chemo,” she says on a day off from the hospital, seated inside a coffee shop. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what your job is or who the president is -- nobody can afford to have cancer.”
In 2010, the year President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, the country’s health expenditures topped $2.6 trillion. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, that’s more than 10 times the $256 million spent in 1980, when Masters' mother was preparing for the arrival of her first and only child. The country spent roughly $1,110 per capita in 1980, a figure that skyrocketed to $8,402 in 2010.
Faced with the reality of these costs on a daily basis, Masters has a personal investment in the health care debate. But it stems from more than sympathy for the patients who seek her counsel. In the 1980s, her mother Carol was a loyal Reagan Republican. When asked about her family’s political makeup, Masters is quick to mention her mother stumping for President Reagan outside a North Carolina polling place while seven-months pregnant.
But a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer set off a shift in ideology. Carol Masters was first diagnosed with cancer 30 years ago. After retreating into remission for some time, her cancer came back with a vengeance when Ashley-Anne was in high school. Doctors diagnosed it as stage four and gave Carol six months to live. She’s far outlasted the prognosis, but the battle dragged on: Ashley-Anne Masters spent the holidays this year by her mother’s hospital bedside when it became clear the cancer was spreading. On Sunday, Jan. 13, a week before Ashley-Anne's 32nd birthday, her mother passed away. Treatment had never been cheap or easy on the family. But Ashley-Anne says her family is aware of how different their circumstances might have been without health insurance.
Despite Carol Masters' earlier party affiliation, she and husband, Al, cast their votes for Obama in both 2008 and 2012. “She had to vote for Obama-care,” Ashley-Anne Masters says, “‘Cause stage four cancer sure as hell is a pre-existing condition.”
Before leaving the workplace on disability to fight cancer with even more focus, Carol Masters was Director of Major Gifts for an international nonprofit. The experience undoubtedly informed a global perspective for her small family.
"I didn’t know people didn’t know about fair trade, I didn’t know people didn’t do alternative gift fairs,” Ashley-Anne Masters says, thinking back to Christmases at home in Taylors, S.C. “If you look at how I was raised, I was raised by Democrats. I’m in an interracial marriage because I was raised that everybody’s the same.”
Masters met husband Reggie Weaver in 1999 at a youth conference through the Presbyterian church, but their courtship was often plagued by pain rooted in racism in the South. Weaver, now the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Chicago, is black.
Masters says some friends refused to attend their August 2008 wedding because of their difference in skin color. Three months before voting President Obama into office, the significance of that election wasn’t lost on the young couple. They spent Masters' January 20th birthday the following year at Obama’s inauguration, shoulder-to-shoulder in the buzzing throngs of people gathered outside of the Capitol.
But she says that historic day in Washington, D.C., left her numb, serving most as an illustration of the decline in respect for elected officials. “As soon as [President George W. Bush] flew away after the ceremony, people were ... flipping him off,” she remembers. “It was horrible. It was the most embarrassing moment as an American I’ve experienced in my lifetime. Because (the president) should be respected. You don’t have to like them, you don’t have to agree with them. Vote against them, but you don’t stand against them.”
For a woman who grew up celebrating the spectacle of the Inauguration every four years -- during an elementary school field trip to the White House, she was surprised to learn parades weren’t an everyday occurrence -- whose birthday is forever entwined with the nation’s history, the downward trend in political engagement has been discouraging.
“Citizenship is real. Patriotism is real,” Masters says. “Before the baby-boomers go, we need to grab some of that.”
Looking ahead, she seems to have lost some excitement for the democratic process. Maybe it’s because of her upbringing, or the patients at Lurie whose fates lie in the hands of politicians losing the faith of the people a little more each day.
“I don’t know what it will take to get it back. I don’t think it’s fair to put all that on any president, that’s for sure," she says. "Nobody who gets elected can fix that overnight.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct details about Carol Masters. She was Director of Major Gifts for an international non-profit and she campaigned for Ronald Reagan in North Carolina. Details about daughter Ashley-Anne have also been corrected. She grew up in Taylors, South Carolina, and met her husband at a Presbyterian church youth conference.