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EDITOR’S NOTE - The recession’s victims are many, but

August 22, 1992

EDITOR’S NOTE - The recession’s victims are many, but among them there are those who are twice victimized. Stripped of health insurance when they lose their jobs, they then lose their health. And some lose their lives.

Undated (AP) _ By GEORGE ESPER AP Special Correspondent

BELLE VERNON, Pa. (AP) - Linda Demko took care of her husband and children. As a nurse, she also took care of all the neighborhood kids - there was hardly a one she hadn’t treated, fed or watched over.

Linda Demko took care of everybody - but herself.

Sick on and off for an entire year, she refused to go to the doctor because, like 36 million other Americans, the Demkos had no health insurance.

Her steelworker husband, John, was laid off for the second time in January, and his health benefits disappeared with his job. A month later, Linda took ill, wracked by pain.

By last August, Demko’s unemployment benefits ran out. He was unaware that he and his wife were eligible for Medicaid. Nor did he inquire.

″Pride or stupidity,″ he said. ″We always thought maybe someone else would need that stuff more than us. All we want is a job. We don’t want to make a lot of money. Give us a decent salary to support our family and the health care benefits.″

″There are tens of thousands of John Demkos out there,″ said his friend, Herman Mihalich, a Pennsylvania legislator. ″Here’s a guy that worked all his life. He felt bad about being out of work and he didn’t want to go on welfare. In his mind, it was some kind of stigma.″

John and Linda met in the summer of ’71, while swimming in a park. Two years later, after graduation from California University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in political science, he started at the steel mill. He intended to work there for just that summer.

But then he and Linda decided to get married. He stayed on at the mill; it had been a lifeline for families for more than 100 years.

″It was good-paying money and it seemed like I was going to be there for a while,″ Demko recalled. ″I never thought anything was going to happen with that type of security.″

But on June 28, 1986, part of the mill in neighboring Monessen was shut down. Demko not only lost his job with Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. after 14 years, but he subsequently lost several thousand dollars in stock when the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1985.

To avoid debt or welfare, Demko retrained at Duquesne University as a paralegal but was unable to find anything beyond entry level jobs that paid as low as $10,000 a year, hardly enough to live on.

He bounced around for a time, selling insurance. Then, in the summer of 1990, he got lucky. He was one of 200 workers hired from 4,000 applicants at USX Corp.’s Clairton works. Six months later, on Jan. 23, 1991, he was laid off again. In his 40th year, it was hard for him to find a job.

There was one bit of stability in his life: Linda, to whom he had been married for 18 years.

Even though she herself hadn’t been feeling well, she rallied her strength to care for her husband when he came down with the flu last Thanksgiving. She prepared a 20-pound turkey and trimmings for a family gathering.

But as Christmas approached, Linda was so weak she could barely move. She had gone too long without seeing a doctor. ″I just made her go,″ said Demko.

She was hospitalized Dec. 19. Doctors found two stones in her gall bladder, but those turned out to be of secondary concern when tests showed she needed a liver transplant that would cost $208,000.

Demko said the doctor told him that without insurance, there was no sense in even recommending his wife for a transplant.

″If you don’t have any health insurance, what do you do? The doctor was saying that was too bad, we’re not even going to give her a chance because you don’t have health insurance.″

Demko believes his wife would have sought help almost a year earlier if there had been national health insurance.

″If she wouldn’t have been worried about how much it was going to cost to go to the doctor, or worried about bills, or worried about unemployment she probably would have went to the doctor ... there wouldn’t have been any excuse for her not to go,″ he says.

In December, with no other choice, Demko urgently sought the help of his friend, the legislator Mihalich, to get government aid.

Demko and the children spent Christmas with Linda in the hospital and exchanged gifts. They gave her a nightgown and perfume.

Demko had never really worried about Linda. She was the family’s heart. ″She was always the one that watched out over everybody else,″ he said.

″She was always real proud of us,″ said Addie Rae, 11. ″She never discouraged us. I mean, if we’d get a bad grade on a test, she’d always say, ‘Make it up the next time.’ She’d never yell at us like other parents do.″

Their mother implored them: ″Try your best. Be the best you can.″

″She was always real nice to us to do our best,″ said John Patrick, 13. ″If we couldn’t be that good, it didn’t really matter. Just as long as we tried.″

The Saturday after Christmas, while Demko and the children were visiting again, he saw a note on the doctor’s clipboard to arrange his wife’s transfer that Monday to a Pittsburgh hospital for the transplant. Everything seemed fine.

″Bye. I’ll see you in a little bit. Be good,″ Linda Demko told the children as they left that night.

″Goodbye, Mommy, I love you and I miss you a lot,″ said Addie Rae.

″See you soon. Love you. Get better,″ said John Patrick.

The very next night, death embraced Linda Demko far too young. She died at age 38, of complications from pneumonia.

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EDITOR’S NOTE - George Esper is the AP’s Northeast regional reporter, based in Boston.

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