Bethany Birch had pain in her diaphragm on and off for eight months in 2016.
She knew it was triggered by food, so she said she tried taking an antacid. That helped a little, but, eventually, she avoided eating altogether. She estimated she lost 25 pounds in that time.
One night that September, the pain would not go away for hours. It was so severe she went to the emergency room at Indian Path Community Hospital in Kingsport, Tennessee, where she lives. An ultrasound revealed she needed her gallbladder removed right away. She was able to get into surgery quickly because she hadn’t eaten in over 12 hours due to her food avoidance.
At the time, Birch was 23 and uninsured. Once she was released from the hospital, however, she lost her housing and spent months without a permanent mailing address while crashing with family.
“It was a pretty rough situation because, at the time, I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have a driver’s license or anything,” Birch said.
For fear of bills she couldn’t afford, she said, she had often avoided seeking care for emergencies, including a broken finger, asthma attacks, and a sprained ankle. She didn’t expect her gallbladder surgery — which cured her pain — to be free.
But she said she never received a bill. She got engage …