If you don’t think we need health care reform, or can’t afford it, or should put it off yet again, I ask that you read the stories of the two women who spoke at Congressman Brad Miller’s office in Raleigh this morning. They’re not long. But they’re important. I’ve transcribed them below — they’re after the jump.

Lydia Tolar is a single mom from Cary with two minor children, a self-employed grants writer and a breast cancer survivor. Because of her cancer, and the economy, her income’s down, and when her current insurance coverage under COBRA runs out, she’s looking at a bill of $17,000 a year for health coverage. She simply won’t be able to pay it, she says. In the meantime, she’s facing a Hobson’s choice about whether to have a prophylactic amputation of her other breast now, while she still has coverage.

Sally Bean lives in Granville County. She retired from teaching three years ago, after 30 years, to care for her aging mother, who has Alzheimer’s. In February, her husband, never sick before, was diagnosed with cancer. Unable to recover, he lost his job in July. They’re 56, a long way from being eligible for Medicare. For the next 18 months, they’ll also be covered under COBRA. But when that goes away, they face financial ruin — or worse.

As Bean herself said, her story — their stories, hers and Lydia Toler’s — are not unique. In fact, they’re all too common in our country. So common, I’m afraid that we mentally discount them when we hear them: Oh, a pre-existing condition; Oh, another one. Oh, the health insurance industry is corrupt, shameful. Oh, tell me something I didn’t know.

Tolar told her story with remarkable self-control. So did Bean, but only after she fought off the tears that came as soon as she said her first words. After that, she spoke in short, quiet sentences, about the American tragedy that is our health care system.

The strange thing was that, following their stories and that of a third speaker (a doctor whose son contracted leukemia at 3), the focus of the press conference that followed wasn’t on what these women had said. Rather, reporters (I include myself) wanted to know about the teabaggers (if you don’t understand the reference, I recommend looking at TalkingPointsMemo.com, HuffingtonPost.com or DailyKos.com — they’re all over it) and their efforts to drown out the health care debate. Then came a diatribe by a Fox News guy from Greensboro — OK, if you put some question marks into what he said, I guess you could argue that he was quizzing Miller — about how reform was just going to drive up the cost of health care for everybody.

One thing’s for sure: Reform won’t drive the costs up for Lydia Tolar or Sally Bean. As both said, it’s really their only hope. Their stories are below the fold.

And for the next month, let’s try to remember: The ‘baggers, and Fox News, aren’t where our attention needs to be.

Lydia Tolar:

Well, yes, I am a self-employer grants developer, and over the past 15 years, in fact, I’ve raised about $55 million for education and research funding on behalf of North Carolina schools and universities.

I’m also a single mother of two minor children, and was treated three years ago for extensive early stage breast cancer, with a left mastectomy and post-mastectomy reconstruction. I was fortunate to still have health insurance at that time; but the co-pays, the treatment complications and the lost earnings have really eliminated all of my savings.

I also had to withdraw from my doctoral program [at Duke] at that time, and therefore, I entered our nation’s economic crisis already at a professional and financial deficit. I can continue my current coverage under COBRA through June, 2010another 10, 11 monthsat which point my personal coverage will jump from $4,500 a year to $17,000 a year, which I cannot afford.

I am also considered at very high-risk for cancer in my currently healthy right breast, my contralateral breast, and I would in fact be eligible for a prophylactic mastectomy and reconstruction of that breast were I not opting simply to undergo watchful waiting and routine monitoring.

So, basically what I’m facing is, I’m struggling to make enough income to support my daughters, keep our house, maybe save a little for college, and I’m facing the following painful decisions —

You know, given the economy, getting a position with benefits back with the universities is, ah, not promising; I’ve already tried a lot over the past year, without any success. And also vastly increasing my contracts back to their former level before the economic crisis doesn’t look promising either, I’ve tried that a lot as well.

And even if I wanted to squeeze every last penny out of my childrens’ present and future, have our house foreclosed upon, move into a one-bedroom apartment, I still couldn’t afford health insurance.

So, I either live with the risk of succumbing to cancer before my eldest reaches 18 or I can choose to have a prophylactic mastectomyI mean, basically, a pro-active amputation of a healthy body partso I can get it done before my current insurance expires.

I’ve been thinking about this, and I’ve realized that people with illnesses and pre-existing conditions seem to be the one class of Americans against whom it’s still considered acceptable to discriminate. In fact, it’s precisely by discriminating against people like me, with pre-existing conditions, and millions of others with pre-existing conditions, that health care companies reap their windfall profits.

So, now basically I have a scarlet ‘C” across my chest, and my challenge, my challenge to remain cancer-free just long enough until my youngest can make it to 18that’s 10 yearsthat challenge of mine is actually less important in this country, apparently, than the profits that the CEOs can make from denying me that care, not insuring me and millions more like me.

And, so, it just boggles the mind. I’ll leave it there.

Sally Bean:

Um, I don’t consider my story special. [Fighting back tears, she is struggling to find the words.]

I consider it like thousands of other Americans.

Todd and I were married 30 years in June. We have worked since we were 16 and 18 years old…. I worked as a special education teacher, Todd worked in the restaurant industry. We’ve had a wonderful life together.

We’ve raised two wonderful children who went to the universities here in North Carolina. We consider ourselves very lucky.

And we were always very aware that, through our employment, we did have health care. We were fortunate enough not to stress it too much in our lives. Todd is one of the luckiest people I know, in that he’s never been sick, until February 18, we were visiting our daughter in California, and he felt ill at dinner. Within about two weeks, and after many, many, many tests, we were told that Todd had renal cell cancer of his left kidney, and it would have to come out. And that he also had another site of cancer.

On April 17, a team of four surgeons operated on Todd and removed both tumors, and his kidney. The second site proved to be cancerous, with 23 out of 28 nodes involved.

Todd was fortunate in that he didn’t have to require chemotherapy or radiation. But he has experienced a great deal of complication through no fault of anyone’s. He has been back in the hospital three times since his surgery, into the ER three times. I counted yesterday because I have to keep track of our doctors appointments, he’s been to the doctor 63 times. He went three times this week. He has not been able to recover.

He is currently incredibly ill, and is not able to be left alone, my sister is living [with us] right now.

On July 16, because we, he ran out of family leave, and because it was possible through his contract, Todd was fired. We now have COBRA insurance for 18 months.

We have a reduced [payment] right now under the program, through the stimulus package, but after the first nine months our COBRA payments will increase 65 percent, to $700 a month, which is about half of our house payment.

I left teaching three years ago to care for my mother, who is bed-bound and has Alzheimer’s, so I don’t, I’m not employed at this time. I’m also not able to leave him and look for employment.

He clearly has a pre-existing condition. I can’t tell you which one scares me more at night, or wakes me up more at night, his current medical condition, or the fact that in 18 months, we’ll have no care for him.

He takes over over five medications a day. He does not improve, and will require a second surgery and lose more than — uh, the amount of testing you need to have — a regular life.

He’ll have to be fed through tubing for the rest of his life.

I’m at an absolute loss —

We tried so hard to work all of our lives, and do the things we thought we were supposed to do; that we are, at 56 years old, looking at the very real possibility of losing our home, and everything we’ve worked for our entire lives —

I can’t understand why people won’t entertain, and listen to the possibility that we need drastic reform. Because as I say, we’re not special. There are many, many others like us.