Unable to afford escalating insurance premiums, Sheila Wessenberg (left) had to stop chemotherapy for breast cancer. Her death exemplifies the American healthcare tragedy. (Media That Matters)

The day after she died from cancer, Sheila Wessenberg became eligible for Medicare. That is only one of the many personal ironies and missed opportunities for proper medical care this mother of two suffered while trying unsuccessfully to get treatment for her disease without health insurance. When Sheila died, her husband Bob was left with a quarter-million dollars of debt and the knowledge that even though he had “played by the rules,” his wife’s illness had destroyed almost everything they had built together.

Filmmaker Julie Winokur, and her photographer husband Ed Kashi, encapsulate a tragedy facing many Americans who, through no fault of their own, have no access to medical care for a serious illness. The Wessenbergs were prospering and did have insurance when Sheila was diagnosed initially, but when her husband’s employer discovered her “pre-existing condition,” his contract wasn’t renewed and the policy was cancelled. Subsequently, the Wessenbergs liquidated nearly all of their assets to pay medical bills, yet were denied government aid. Sheila resorted to begging on the street to earn enough money to eat.

This beautifully photographed film is narrated by Sheila and her family members, and unflinchingly takes the viewer through the entire process, from delayed and futile cancer treatments to her funeral. Touching remarks by her husband and daughter emphasize the enormous human toll that withheld medical care unfairly takes on the family as well as the patient.

Shiela’s story was first published in 2003 in the New York Times Magazine. Readers were so shocked by her suffering that they donated over $50,000 in order to help the family stay afloat. Winokur and Kashi later put on an exhibit and published a book titled “Denied.” The film was made recently to reinvigorate the call for reform in U.S. health care policy. It won the Jury Award for the Tenth Annual Media that Matters Festival

CHANNEL: Media That Matters

Length: 12:00

Directed and Produced by Julie Winokur
Videography by Julie Winokur
Photography by Ed Kashi