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Flash View, 10-18: Echoes of Homer
A Dancer's Cry for Universal Health Care

By Edisa Weeks
Copyright 2007 Edisa Weeks
Illustration by and copyright 2007 Robin Hoffman

(Editor's Note: The following remarks were delivered September 15 at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx at a community forum hosted by Dr. Jaime Torres and featuring Congressman Jose Serrano and others. Congressman John Conyers has also posted the remarks, as well as photographs of Homer Avila, on his website. To read more about HR 676, Congressman Conyers's bill to make Medicare universal health care for all Americans, click here. To read more about Homer Avila's impact on dance and dancers, click here.)

My Name is Edisa Weeks and I am speaking about Homer Avila, who was my partner for nine years. In 1993 Homer and I started a dance company together called AvilalWeeks Dance. In 2001 Homer was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer -- chondro sarcoma -- and because the cancer had severely spread had to have his right leg and hip amputated.

Homer was born and raised in New Orleans and was a first generation American. His mother is from El Salvador and worked as a cleaning lady, his father is from Honduras and was a merchant marine. Homer's ticket out of New Orleans was gymnastics. He received a gymnastics scholarship at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, which is where he discovered dance. Homer was passionate about dance. It wasn't just a profession, it was a calling for him. He worked with several luminaries in the dance world including Twyla Tharp, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and Mark Morris. Homer and I met working with Bill T. Jones.

In 1998 Homer started to have an occasional discomfort and pain in his right hip. Neither of us had health insurance -- we were self-employed and couldn't afford it -- so Homer tried to self diagnose and ease his pain through massage and Advil.

In 2000 Homer had a summer job dancing at the Santa Fe Opera, which was a union position and provided health coverage. When the job ended we debated if he should continue the coverage for a year through COBRA, and if he could make the monthly payments. I am so grateful that Homer decided to pay for COBRA for without it our lives would have been hell.

In February 2001 Homer and I completed jobs guest teaching and performing at Boston University. Homer was in amazing amount of pain, yet persisted in performing. We were in a difficult situation as we make a living with our bodies, and no performance, no income. On returning to New York Homer made an appointment in March to see a doctor, who referred him to a specialist. At this point Homer and I thought he had worn away the cartilage in his hip -- a common dancer injury -- and would need a hip replacement. It was a shock to see the MRI images and see the cancer that had spread from his hip and was pushing his bladder to the other side of his body. The doctor was horrified that Homer had been dancing as the cancer had so corroded his pelvic bone that a wrong move could send his femur bone driving through his body. Homer and I had performances and teaching jobs lined up for April and the rest of the year, however the doctor told us that he wanted to operate in the next few weeks and would need to amputate Homer's hip and leg. We were devastated. Eight years of work, sacrifice and aspirations came crashing down.

In retrospect I wonder, if Homer had been able to receive health care when his hip first started bothering him, could his leg have been spared and would he still be alive today? In 2003 the cancer metastasized to his lungs and in April 2004 Homer passed away. What is amazing is that Homer kept dancing after his leg was amputated. It was beautifully bizarre and incredibly inspiring to see him leap, turn and dance on one leg. He performed the last evening of his life. He checked himself into the hospital that night and died the next day.

Disability rights and access to health care became important issues for Homer. I wish he could be here today to speak for himself and the courage it takes to continue when you don't have resources or support, or when a significant part of your life has been radically altered.

 

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