Michael Milligan had some heartbreaking experiences to draw from when he wrote “Mercy Killers.”
He will perform the one-man play at the Summit County Community and Senior Center in Frisco on Tuesday, March 11. The show follows a couple dealing with the dysfunctions of the American health care system after a technicality causes them to lose their health insurance. Playing the role of the husband, Milligan recounts the financial burdens the two are faced with when one of them becomes seriously ill.
“Mercy Killers” is set in the middle of the recent recession, before the Affordable Care Act was passed, but Milligan said people are still struggling with health care.
“We’re in this limbo area where Obamacare has been enacted, and we don’t really know what’s going on,” Milligan said. “There’s still the question of, is this going to raise premiums, are we going to be able to afford this as a society? Are people going to still be able to afford care even with the insurance, high deductibles, co-pays — will this curtail the number of bankruptcies that Americans experience from medical bills?”
Drawing from experience
Milligan said that artists are a segment of the population that is particularly marginalized by the health care system because of the difficulty of getting insurance. And though he has been very fortunate with getting consistent work and maintaining consistent health insurance, he was in a relationship with someone who required a lot of medical care.
“So for six years, I experienced what it’s like to be an artist in America and face a health care crisis,” he said.” My girlfriend was struggling. She struggled with being on and off insurance, having to go take a freelance editing job to get insurance and the care she needed, and then she would at some point try to go back to those struggles of being an actor and then lose insurance. It was a real ordeal, and it basically consumed all of our finances and all of our energy.”
Milligan said that experience was his first big eye-opener, which made him aware of what people experience in this country during a medical crisis.
“I call it a silent holocaust,” he said. “You don’t hear from them, and you don’t know about it and you don’t expect that it could happen. Only when it happens to you do you find out what it’s like to lack insurance or have insurance that’s inadequate for what you need.”
Milligan’s second foray into the nightmare of health care in America came when one of his classmates at Julliard showed up at the door of the theater at which he was working.
“He’d been homeless for a year and a half following a mental breakdown and ended up on the streets,” Milligan said. “I took it upon myself to get him back up on his feet in some sort of housing situation. He was homeless and had an enormous lump on his arm and a slipped disk in his neck. It was a huge eye-opener, again, how difficult it can be to receive care when you don’t have insurance, don’t even have an ID.”
Milligan’s initial thought was to help his friend.
“The next response was, ‘Oh no, oh no, he’s going to drag me down with him,’” he said. “It reminds me of the old adage, if you are treading water you can’t rescue a drowning man. I struggled with that, and that brought up the question to me of, why is it that I have to take on the burden of my friend’s struggles all by myself? Why is it all on my shoulders whether he gets what he needs or not?
“If I was in another country where they had a real universal health care system, I could walk into the doctor with him, get my sore throat checked out while he had his problems checked out because we are both human beings and citizens of that country. But I’m stuck in a situation of I have to either leave my friend to fend for himself when he’s unable to or open up the envelope to this old credit card and pay for care for him, take out a bunch of debt. And that seems like an unjust and tragic situation where the burden for health care is placed on our most intimate relationships and places an unnecessary strain on those relationships.”
Composing a play
The final episode that moved Milligan to begin writing his play came during a three-month gap in his own insurance, due to moving multiple times and missing a few premium payments.
“Three weeks into that, I start passing a kidney stone in the middle of a play reading,” he said. “I didn’t know what was going on. I excused myself and went home and went on the Internet to WebMD and tried to diagnose myself, and you always end up with something much worse. What came up was kidney failure.”
Milligan weighed the options: take an ambulance to the emergency room, where there was a 100 percent chance that the trip would cost him at least $8,000, or endure the pain and hope it wasn’t kidney failure, which has a 5 percent chance of being fatal if left unchecked for two or three days.
“So I stayed home and toughed it out, and I thought, ‘Man, I have to write that play,’” he said.
“Mercy Killers” is not a direct account of Milligan’s trials but, rather, a fictional narrative based on interviews and research that draws from the playwright’s feelings and experiences.
“I see the play as a kind of inoculation for people, too,” he said. “The experience of the play is very different for people who have never experienced any problems with their health versus people who have gone through a medical crisis. The people who have never experienced anything, they are amazed and moved by the story and I think it’s very important for people who have never faced something to really get a good picture of what it can be like.
“For people who have experienced crises, they find the play very cathartic. Often the burden of a medical crisis is something that’s very, very private. People withdraw or don’t communicate the sort of dark, negative feelings that are present in dealing with the situation. Feelings that are uncomfortable or embarrassing — people feel humiliation or shame or guilt. They keep those things to themselves.”
Donna Smith is the executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation, the organization sponsoring Milligan’s play in Frisco. A two-time cancer survivor, Smith said she was struck by the authenticity of the show.
“I was mind boggled by how genuine it is in terms of helping walk people through what someone would go through both mentally and financially and emotionally, and it really brings home all the things that happen to you if you get sick and need care,” she said. “It really opens up a lot of avenues for discussion.”
Following the play, there will be a forum to discuss the topic of universal health care, share personal stories and begin a dialogue about health care reform, Smith said.
“‘Mercy Killers’ drives home the need for a different kind of health care system that’s not based on profits and really is based on health care rather than if enough money is made throughout the system,” Smith said.
“I see the play as a kind of inoculation for people.”
Speaking of his play ‘Mercy Killers’