Alexa Suess was 19 years old when she first fell ill. By 20, she found herself over $250,000 in medical debt.
“I was in a lot of pain, and I asked my doctor what I could do,” said Ms. Suess, who regularly paddle boards in the Peconic Bay and runs long distances. “She told me that I could walk.”
Now the local resident and business owner is preparing to walk over 100 miles to help others facing medical debt and to raise awareness for what she describes as a “healthcare system that’s not working for the majority of Americans.”
Next Tuesday, May 10, Ms. Suess will trek from Central Park in Manhattan to Mitchell Park in Greenport — the equivalent of walking nearly four back-to-back marathons.
“I know this is not quite what my doctor had in mind,” she said jokingly, “but the permission to do something physical like this and to keep doing something that feels normal for me is so important.”
It took five years, multiple hospitalizations and a great deal of tests to diagnose Ms. Suess with a rare bile duct dysfunction that causes necrotizing inflammation of her pancreas.
A year ago, she was also diagnosed with antiphospolipid syndrome, a disorder in which her immune system mistakenly creates antibodies that attack her body tissue.
“My body was eating its own pancreas, the cause was unknown, and I was deeply in debt,” she wrote on a website created to share her upcoming journey.
Ms. Suess spent hundreds of hours on the phone negotiating payment plans, and it took her several years before she could finally pay off $50,000 of what was at one point almost a half million dollars of debt — all while dealing with chronic pain.
Over 90% of Americans have some form of health insurance and yet medical debt remains a persistent issue for many households.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, roughly 23 million people — nearly 1 in 10 adults in the U.S. — owe medical debt.
Medical debt has a negative impact on other financial aspects of peoples’ lives — often making it harder to secure housing, access transportation and find employment.
The burden of medical care can even discourage people from seeking necessary medical attention altogether.
In a nationwide poll from the West Health Institute in 2018, 44% percent of Americans reported that they didn’t go to a doctor when they were sick or injured in the previous year because of costs.
“The reality is I’m not raising awareness for anything,” Ms. Suess said. “Everybody has been in medical debt or has known somebody who has been in medical debt … it’s really about addressing it head-on.”
For every mile that Suess walks, at least $40 will be donated to RIP Medical Debt — a 501(C)(3) that relieves families of these crushing bills. The organization does this by buying portfolios of debt at discounted rates from collection agencies, making the donations that Suess raises more effective at reducing medical relief than at their dollar value.
As a co-owner of Common Ground — a jewelry store and studio in Greenport — Ms. Suess said she’s grateful for the support that she’s been given from individuals and local businesses in the community.
She also has the support of a crew that has been helping her with the logistics of what she estimates will be a 36-hour non-stop walk. The crew will trail behind her in an RV mother ship — as she called it — stocked with food, water and the essentials. She will also be updating her location along the way on social media to invite those in the area to join her on her walk.
“At the end of the day, this is for struggling Americans who have healthcare debt that needs to be relieved,” she said.
“With this walk, I’m not seeking necessarily to change the behemoth that is the American healthcare system, but what I can do is maybe help one person who is struggling, and for me, that’s enough,” she said.
To learn more or donate, visit www.miles4medicaldebt.com.