tampabay.com

Paycheck to Paycheck: Losing everything

Diane Ryder never dreamed she would be facing foreclosure. Then came knee surgery and cancer. It could happen to almost anyone.

By John Pendygraft, Times Photographer
Published August 13, 2007


Before the surgeries and before the cancer, Diane Ryder felt secure. Thanks to money left by her late husband, the 59-year-old St. Petersburg woman felt financially cared for. For about three years after his death, she led a comfortable life. She ate out whenever she wanted, drove a nice new Lincoln Town Car, and was renovating the bathrooms in the home she has lived in for nearly 30 years. Everything was paid for, and she lived on about $6,000 a month.

Ryder did have an annoying trick knee that turned painfully inward when she walked. She went in for surgery and didn't heal well. When the staples were removed, the knee broke open.

More surgeries were required. Each seemed to leave the knee worse off than before. In place of a functioning knee, bone rubs against bone. The pain leaves her bedridden. Now her doctors recommend surgically fusing the bones together, leaving her a leg that won't bend.

There were a lot of medical bills, and things got tight financially, but Ryder thought it would pass. In six months or so, she would be okay.

Then in November 2005 an X-ray found cancer in her lung. She quit smoking five years ago, but the damage from years of cigarettes had already been done. The doctors said the cancer could kill her; the knee wouldn't. So the knee was left for later, and cancer treatment began.

She pays $600 a month for health insurance, but the co-pays mounted beyond what she could afford.

"I thought what Medicare didn't pay, my other insurance would. But they don't. So they send me the bill to pay," she says.

Soon she was putting medications and groceries on credit cards. She mortgaged her home.

It wasn't enough.

She canceled her Internet, cable and phone.

It wasn't enough.

She sold her stereo. Her lawn mower. Her computer. A vacuum. A ceiling fan. Some furniture.

Not enough.

She received a foreclosure notice. She pawned her jewelry, including her parents' wedding bands, and found homes for three of her four dogs.

Still, it wasn't enough.

Her home was scheduled to be auctioned on the courthouse steps on July 16, her 59th birthday.

She filed for bankruptcy again to postpone the foreclosure. A judge recently dismissed the second bankruptcy filing, clearing the way for her home to be auctioned in a few weeks.

The cancer has stopped growing. But her knee is still painful and debilitating. Ryder requires constant care, which she receives from her boyfriend. They fell in love shortly after she hired him to tile the new bathroom in 2003, one good year before her health problems began.

"I need 24-hour care. I can't even get to the kitchen for a glass of water. We've thought about having someone in here to care for me. They don't have to be a nurse, just someone. But what he'd make going back to work, it wouldn't pay what it would cost to have someone take care of me. We don't know what to do," Ryder explains.

Because she is not yet 60, she says, Medicare can't help her with home care or transportation to doctors' appointments.

"The state of Florida's medical system is horrifying to older people ... well, the ones older than me can get more help than I can. I'm 59. If I was 60 I could get more help. At 59 in other states, I'd be able to get the help. They don't have this 60-magic-number-thing in other states. ... I feel that I'm being discriminated against," she says, "If I can make it one more year, maybe we can get the help we need to get our life back together."

She said she doesn't know what will happen if the foreclosure goes through.

"I guess I owe about $120,000 in medical bills," she says. Her bank accounts are at zero, and her credit is shot. "How are we going to get first month, last month and a security deposit on an apartment? I have no idea."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

About this feature

Seventy percent of U.S. families say they live paycheck to paycheck. American savings are in the negative, the lowest level since the Great Depression. In the Tampa Bay area, financial pressures for many are acute: Average wages are lower than in comparable cities, and median home prices have doubled in a decade. Add a surge in property taxes and insurance bills, and the challenge to make ends meet quickly becomes pervasive. Times photographer John Pendygraft is seeking stories that put a face behind the phenomenon.

Are you living paycheck to paycheck? Or have you? Share your story at money.tampabay.com.