A Letter to Bernard Tyson, CEO of Kaiser Permanente, from a 34 Year-Old with Breast Cancer

Dear Mr. Tyson,

Last night, I spent 20 minutes on the phone with a pharmacist who called me to make sure that my pain needs are covered. Between surgeries and chemo, I had a whole lot of meds from a whole lot of doctors, and he wanted to make sure that I had everything I needed, and that I knew how to take everything that had been prescribed.

There are a lot of problems with healthcare in this country, and I am writing to thank you for running an organization that I see as part of the solution, and not part of the problem.

I’ve been a Kaiser member since my teens. I have always appreciated the ease of dealing with Kaiser; if I have a problem, there’s a clear number to call for advice, and all the doctors are in one place. I’ve also always seen Kaiser as very innovative: I was given acupuncture and biofeedback as part of a trial for migraine headaches at Kaiser San Francisco in my early 20s. I had my daughter at Kaiser Walnut Creek in 2010, where the staff is full of midwives and there are birthing tubs. We paid $200 for my entire delivery and hospital stay, and every one of my daughter’s well checks have been free. As it turns out, she needed hearing aids, and her visits with a top notch audiologist (shout out to Dr. Madory in Novato!) are fully covered. I have always been thankful for how easy everything is, and I’ve always felt that I received quality care.

But in June of this year my appreciation for Kaiser reached a new level when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 34. I felt something strange in my breast starting in April, and immediately went to my OB/GYN.

I have a family history of breast cancer (two aunts, two grandmothers, and — last year — my mother), and Kaiser completely paid to have my genetic testing done. Everything came back negative, but I was still put in a High Risk “Clinic” where I was given access to a talented breast surgeon in San Francisco (Dr. Langer) and started on a regimen of early screenings. Dr. Langer took time out of her extremely busy schedule to explain early screenings and personally called me when my baseline MRI came back “funny.”

Dr. Christopher Cappelen, a radiologist in San Rafael, was the one to do my diagnostic ultrasound and biopsy. He was the one who had the very unfortunate job of, at 4 p.m. on a Friday, telling a 34 year-old single mom that what she had wasn’t “funny:” it was breast cancer.

I laid there on that table, tears streaming down my face, telling him cancer wasn’t part of my plan, and he was so, so kind. I look back on it now, and I know that the ultrasound techs knew something was very wrong when they brought me into the screening room, but they thoughtfully explained the number of people in the room in a way that was designed to not scare the crap out of me. I was technically alone, without a single member of my family, but they gave me comfort in a way that I can’t describe. Dr. Cappelen talked to my parents on the phone and explained what was happening. I can’t tell you how much this meant to me, and how much anxiety it relieved over the coming weekend.

It is now November, and I have had a bilateral mastectomy with tissue expanders inserted, and just finished my first round of chemotherapy. When my chemo is over, I face radiation and at least one more surgery. I am Stage 2a. If I hadn’t gotten an early screening through Kaiser, I would likely not have lived through my 40s. What a terrifying thought.

Everyone from my extremely talented plastic surgeon Dr. Gurjala, to the nurses in the hospital in San Francisco (especially Michelle, Vera, Jimmy, and AJ), to the entire staff in the San Rafael chemo clinic, has treated me like a human being. My oncologist, Dr. Greyz, is so forward-thinking that she “prescribed” walks with tweeting birds because studies show this helps chemo patients, right alongside my chemo drugs. Your breast care coordinator, Vicki Landes, has provided me with emotional support, free resources, a support group, and a heart pillow for after my mastectomy. Your advice nurses have made me cry with their empathy.

It is abundantly clear to me through every step of this horrible, horrible experience that people at Kaiser honestly care about me, and that as an organization you are truly working toward an ideal healthcare model. The payment plan you provide at zero percent interest was another shocking discovery I made that relieved a suffocating amount of stress for me.

I am sure that not everyone has had the best possible experience with Kaiser (I mean really, read the comments section of anything, people have complaints about rainbows these days), but I wanted you to know that I, for one, have. I wanted to thank you and tell you that I trust Kaiser’s doctors and nurses, and I wouldn’t want to go through cancer with any other health insurance.

Health care in this country is a mess, Mr. Tyson, but I recognize how lucky I am that I have Kaiser, and I am immensely grateful.

Thank you to you and every single Kaiser employee who has treated me with respect and kindness. Because of early intervention and excellent health care, I’m going to beat this.


Sara Olsher

The featured image is a photo a snuck of my breast MRI. Syonara, cancer.