This was submitted by WGA member Mark Kunerth.
We all have our own reasons for marching in circles for hours on end. It may be the hope of achieving fair compensation for new media or the desire to revamp the dreaded DVD formula or it could simply be to show solidarity and resolve.
However, the reality that often gets lost in the mix is how the outcome of these negotiations – the fair compensation for all of our work – will affect contributions to our pensions and health fund. Any concessions or rollbacks, regardless of how the companies may try to decorate them, will directly and significantly affect the stability and viability of two funds we largely take for granted.
I know I certainly used to take them for granted. That was until six years ago when my wife was stricken with a life-threatening illness. It was a time filled with grief, confusion and uncertainty, yet the Guild was there. That is why I walk the strike line. To support a union that supported my family during a very dark time. During that time, a faceless organization became a collection of caring, compassionate friends. For that, I will always be grateful.
When my wife was just over seven months pregnant, I found her on the floor in our home office convulsing in a violent grand mal seizure. Instinct took over, paramedics were called, and an ambulance rushed my wife to the nearest hospital. There, while awaiting treatment, she suffered two more seizures, underwent a CAT scan and spent the next twenty-four hours drifting in and out of consciousness as doctors struggled to come up with a diagnosis.
Once stabilized, we were told my wife’s CAT scan was negative, and that her seizures were the result of adult-onset epilepsy; an odd diagnosis and punch to the gut, but a relief that the previous days’ drama was nothing more serious. Sent home with anti-seizure medication and an otherwise clean bill of health, my wife and I spent that day trying to wrap our heads around this diagnosis. That night, however, she had another seizure in her sleep. Again paramedics were called and back we went to the hospital.
Doctors performed another CAT scan. Afterward, they pulled me aside and said, “We found a mass. Your wife has a brain tumor.” This was impossible. The scan two days earlier showed nothing. The doctor checked my wife’s patient file. No record of a previous CAT scan. The cynic in me said, “Of course.”
Over the next thirty-six hours, my wife was held in intensive care where she suffered five more seizures, each more violent than the last. Finally stabilized with heavy doses of anti-seizure medication, she was moved to a private room in the High Risk Pregnancy ward where we would remain for the next six weeks, allowing our baby to grow as close to term as possible. The plan was to wait for our baby to be born; then schedule my wife for brain surgery. The entire time, she was exhaustively monitored by state-of-the-art equipment, impressive machines and mind-boggling technology that a writer can’t possibly begin to understand.
We spent time between blood draws and neurological tests learning all we could about brain tumors. We researched doctors, and tried, with great difficulty, to adjust to our new reality. Less than a week into our ordeal, the phone in our tiny hospital room rang. It was a representative from the Writers Guild of America. Word had gotten out about our little story, and the Guild wanted to make sure that we were receiving everything we needed, and to ask if there was anything they could do to help.
We didn’t know what we needed, just that our plate was suddenly and ridiculously full. There was even an IRS audit in the middle of this. Seriously.
We were reassured that the Guild was a phone call away, ready to provide anything: doctor referrals, recommendations, assistance with paperwork and the peace of mind that our medical insurance – still one of the best in the country – would cover everything. We were instructed to make our medical decisions based on need and what we deemed best for us, and the Guild and its insurance would do the rest.
A month and a half later, our little girl was born – three weeks early and with under-developed lungs. She spent the first several days of her life in the neonatal unit. (Because we still hadn’t had enough drama.)
With the help of referrals, we found the best brain surgeon in the country, if not the world. Dr. Keith Black, who heads up the Maxine Dunitz Neurological Clinic at Cedars Sinai Hospital, has dedicated his life to treating brain tumors and working for a cure. He agreed to perform my wife’s surgery, and a week later, she was transported to Cedars Sinai Medical Center where she underwent four-hour brain surgery to remove a racquetball-sized tumor from her left, frontal lobe. Three days later, she was home. The WGA called again to inquire about the health of my wife and daughter. In the course of eight weeks, we had accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills.
All of it was covered by our insurance.
A week after brain surgery, we met with Dr. Black for her biopsy results. Our research had led us to a morbid hope. “We need the tumor to be either grade one or grade two.” Those, our research had told us, were the types of tumors that were eminently treatable or even curable.
Our doctor sat us down and said, “Surgery went incredibly well.” Hope.
He went on, “Unfortunately your tumor was a glioblastoma multiforme – grade four.” The words we didn’t understand turned out to mean, ‘Incurable.’ Complete devastation.
We were told that it would be treated aggressively. Radiation. Chemotherapy. Still, the prognosis wasn’t good. Most people diagnosed with these tumors live, on average, 18-24 months. We were told of the incredible likelihood that my wife would not see our daughter walk.
The next few months were filled with innumerable doctor visits, MRIs, radiation treatments and finally a steady diet of oral chemotherapy that my wife would continue indefinitely.
The whole time, the WGA supported us, helping us cut through healthcare red tape and managing an unending maze of hospital and insurance company beauracracies.
It’s now been nearly six years since my wife collapsed in our home office. Our little girl started kindergarten in the fall. My wife has valiantly fought her way back from the most vicious of diseases and the direst of prognoses. She discontinued her monthly chemotherapy nearly three years ago and now, aside from a really cool scar on her head, you’d never know she was sick. And despite no longer working as a sitcom writer, she still benefits from my WGA insurance coverage and marches side-by-side the rest of us, logging more hours than most, I’m sure.
For us, the strike is about much more than DVDs, streaming video, ESTs and any number of negotiating bullet points that involve math I don’t entirely understand. Like my fellow guild members, I want to be paid fairly for all of our work. On top of that, however, I hope to keep the very real and significant contributions to our pension and health care funds, which will continue to provide all of us with world class healthcare.
So while I walk for a fair deal, I also walk out of loyalty to my union. I walk because I will never forget their support in the face of adversity. I know my reasons are probably different than most, and oh, how it would be so very easy for me to hit the snooze button and forego that 6 a.m. strike walk. But it also would have been very easy for the Guild to have not gotten so personally involved in our lives.
And while this letter may be perceived as ‘heart-tugging,’ ‘manipulative,’ or some lame attempt at sympathy, it is really a long overdue thank you letter to the Writers Guild of America.
Thank you, WGA.