A killer toothache: Storytelling for the poor

Catholic Voices
It’s the hidden tragedies that tell the real tale of our nation’s economic woes.

Don’t tell me your sob stories,” some people will say when you bring up the various trials and tribulations of the poor in an effort to justify, say, extended unemployment benefits, broadened eligibility for food stamps or school lunches, Head Start or universal health care. It’s true that individual stories can’t construct a comprehensive view of a problem, but a stupefying pile of statistics doesn’t do much better in making a problem seem real. Or that in some African American communities, for instance, Austin on the West Side of Chicago, unemployment among males has reached 25 percent? Or that 46 million, or one in six, U.S. residents are now below the poverty line, and nearly 50 million citizens don’t have dependable health care?

What storytelling can do is bring some life to those disembodied numbers; they can make the suffering real, into something we can understand because we know “they” could be “us,” because we have heard similar stories from our brothers and sisters and children and neighbors. So here’s one story, a shameless sob story, out of the Great Recession:

A 24-year-old Ohio man, father of a 6-year-old girl, died at the end of August. Dying so young should have been the only remarkable and tragic aspect of his passing, but the death of Kyle Willis was notable for other reasons. You might say Willis was killed by poverty.

Unemployed and without health insurance, Willis had ignored a toothache until the pain became too much. Like a lot of people without insurance, he finally went to his nearest hospital emergency room. He received a prescription for a pain killer, $3, and antibiotics, $27. Guess which one the unemployed father decided to buy?


The $3 painkillers did nothing to halt the infection that was causing his toothache. It quickly made its way from his gums into his brain and killed him. A completely unnecessary death, a completely unnecessary void opened in a child’s life.

The moral measure of the nation is being taken today in how it responds to the economic tsunami sweeping the country, the U.S. bishops remind policymakers in Washington. What’s truly important, they say, “is not which party wins or which powerful interests prevail, but rather how the jobless, hungry, homeless, and poor are treated.”

“We understand that the fiscal status quo is unsustainable, with mounting deficits and growing debt for our children,” the bishops wrote in an August 31 letter to the congressional super committee which will discern how the nation is going to balance its short-term needs with a long-term interest in deficit reduction.

“The question is how to fulfill the demands of justice and moral obligations to future generations and protect the lives and dignity of those who are poor and vulnerable.”


Kyle Willis’ small story doesn’t explain the nation’s many poor excuses for remaining the lone Western industrialized state that does not provide adequate health care as a matter of course for all its citizens. It does not explain why American “job creators” have been rubbernecking from the sidelines of the nation’s economic wreck, enjoying record profits and huge productivity gains and nesting over the largest hoard of cash in U.S. corporate history while job conditions deteriorate. But it does offer a glimmer of the desperation and the no-win choices people are being asked to make as this disaster continues, with no sign of an economic Red Cross in sight.

Some will say this story is of little consequence before the grander issues of our time—curtailing deficit spending during a period of historic lows in bond rates, or preventing the nation’s poorest from becoming dependent and demoralized by government aid during a time when millions are out of work through no fault of their own.

Let them explain their reasoning to Willis’ daughter. That should be an easy story to tell a little girl who is wondering how her father could have died from a toothache.

This article appeared in the November 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 11, page 44).


Image: Tom Wright

About the author

Kevin Clarke

Kevin Clarke is the chief correspondent for America magazine and author of Oscar Romero: Love Must Win Out (Liturgical Press).

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