Roseville, MN – After working and paying into Social Security for more than 30 years, Lois Dare had a curious cough. Was it pneumonia? She got a chest x-ray. Later that day, her doctor’s office called her at home. “You need to come in.” The diagnosis? Life-threatening lung cancer. Parts of her left lung had to be removed.
Profoundly grateful to her doctors, her family, and her pastor to have survived her invasive surgery, she now needs oxygen to get through the day and night. Without a job, and facing two denials for Social Security disability benefits, most people in this situation would feel sick and helpless. Not Lois.
Her story to get her Social Security hearing would span the world from her town in Minnesota all the way to China. In an era of disconnected politicians and short attention spans, she would gain the heart and the attention of the Minnesota Governor, the offices of the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Senate, and the President of the United States.
What is it about this remarkable woman that she can get so much done with so little energy? To describe Lois, “empowered” is an understatement. She’s very engaging, but had no political connections. “Persistent” is inadequate, because she’s been chronically tired. “Opportunistic”? She’s had few opportunities since getting sick. “Focused”? Yes. For Lois, the cancer bypassed her most generous organ: Her heart. And where her heart is, she goes.
Lois was at her girlfriend’s house a few weeks ago when she heard President Obama was coming through Minnesota to Cannon Falls on August 15, a few days later. “I’ve got to talk to him,” Lois told her. Impossible, thought her girlfriend. Not for Lois.
She got back to her house. “Fill up the gas tank,” she told her husband.
“What about your oxygen?” he worried.
“Just pack the batteries!”
So began the odyssey to talk with the President of the United States.
She lived out of her car for two days. She stood in line for 11½ hours for tickets to hear the President speak. She underwent security checks. After satisfying all the initial requirements, Lois was one of 122 ticket holders who could hear the President speak close up. But there was a problem. More security checks were two football fields away. She couldn’t make it with her oxygen in tow. Was this the end of her chance to talk with the President of the United States? Not for Lois.
She saw a car drive up. She went over and leaned in toward the window. “Could I have a ride? I can’t make this walk and I want to see the President.”
“Get in,” said a friendly voice inside. This is how Lois hitch-hiked a ride to meet the President of the United States. Once at the new Secret Service check-points, the driver flashed a card and brought her through them. She learned she was riding with the President’s press secretary. “I wish I had a daughter,” she told him. “If I did, I would have her meet a nice man like you.” He laughed, hard.
Once out of the car, she secured a place right in front of the President’s dais.
After his speech, the President took a few questions from the audience. Lois raised her hand, but couldn’t raise it too high. He still called on her.
Lois asked the President what people are supposed to do when they are sick while waiting for Social Security benefits. Lois was speaking for herself, but also for others like her.
The President answered her, agreeing with Lois that those who have become unable to work should be able to rely on Social Security benefits, especially since they have paid for them throughout their lifetime.
After leaving the podium, President Obama hugged Lois. Close up, he told her she reminded him of his mother, who died of cancer. “Whatever else he said to me, I don’t know.” She was overwhelmed.
President Obama instructed his staff to get her contact information. Then came the deluge. Lois soon received calls from the offices of Rep. Michele Bachmann, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton. The Associated Press called. Even a Chinese correspondent wanted to interview her, without a translator.
She got her Social Security disability hearing scheduled in September. Then Lois and I went to argue her claim.
Social Security disability hearings take time for Social Security to schedule, and the backlog of pending claims is increasing across the country. Some states encourage programs that can clog the system with applications. At the hearing level, attorneys can write legal briefs for an approval without a hearing. In Lois’ case, however, her attorneys tried an “on-the-record” request for approval.
“Not all cases, despite your best efforts, can avoid a hearing,” says Tracy Bishop, a Hoglund attorney involved in Lois’ case. “Sometimes the hearing is necessary to make the process human.”
Lois’ story is about gratitude. Lois wants no one to take health for granted. “I’m grateful to be alive, to be here on this Earth…I would rather have the aches and pains than to not be on this Earth.”
Lois’ story is about survival. She will continue following up with her cancer doctor.
Lois’ story is also about resilience that rejects dependence. “I needed somebody to hear me. I did what I had to do.” The message she lives is simple and profound: When all seems lost, help yourself by reaching out to others.
For a video clip on the President’s appearance with Lois, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOZji2w-i30
Andrew Kinney, Esq.