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Charlotte Woman Has Front Seat At State-of-Union Address

David T. Foster III
Charlotte Observer

A Charlotte woman whose treatment of a brain tumor was made possible by the Affordable Care Act will sit with first lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union address Tuesday, a White House spokeswoman said Sunday.

Astrid Muhammad, 39, of the University City area will be one of the special guests in the audience during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday.

Typically, the White House invites people whose personal stories illustrate themes in the president’s speech. This year, those invited are all said to have written to him in the last year about their personal situations, according to The Associated Press.

Jessica Santillo, a spokeswoman for the White House, said she does not know yet whether Obama will mention Muhammad in his speech.

Muhammad, a wife and mother of two young children, says affordable health care saved her life.

The self-employed administrative assistant and cardio dance instructor started suffering from a ringing in her left ear and balance issues in fall 2012.

“The noise in my ear sounded like crickets. It was really really annoying,” she said. In May 2013, an MRI revealed that Muhammad had a brain tumor.

Although Muhammad previously had insurance through employers, she had been without it since 2009, when she became self-employed. And because her husband was part time, he was uninsured, too.

She knew she had to get the tumor removed, but she didn’t know how she was going to pay for it.

“There were some moments of stress and anxiety,” she said. “There were moments of denial, like I didn’t have this issue going on.”

Muhammad said that although she voted for Obama in both elections, she hadn’t followed the affordable care debate very closely. “I really didn’t pay much attention to it until I needed it,” she said.

After the health insurance marketplace opened in 2014, she purchased Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina insurance to cover her much-needed medical costs in March.

The health care law offers subsidized private insurance to people who don’t have coverage on the job, combined with expanded Medicaid in states that agree to broaden eligibility for that safety-net program. North Carolina did not expand Medicaid.

Republicans have tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, saying it’s too expensive and puts too much strain on businesses.

Muhammad said she was “ecstatic” when she got the insurance because by that time, the symptoms had started to worsen. She was suffering from severe headaches, as well as shaky vision.

She said she was able to have the meningioma tumor removed on Aug. 28 last year.

“I was very grateful for the insurance,” she said. “My neurosurgeon told my family that … I had an angel in there with me. The tumor had grown into the nerves and it was impacting the nerves, which made the surgery very delicate. It was a high-risk surgery.”

Today, Muhammad is still recovering. At first she used a walker, then a cane, and she can now walk on her own. She still has partial hearing issues on her left side, a consequence of the tumor, as well as facial paralysis.

But she said she was so grateful to have even survived the tumor that she was moved to write to Obama.

“I wanted to write to the president and really express my gratitude for the Affordable Care Act and let him know how I benefited from it,” she said. “I told him I wanted to thank him personally and shake his hand.”

Muhammad emailed Obama in late October. In November, the White House contacted her to let her know that they wanted to feature her story on the “Faces of Health Care” blog.

It wasn’t until last week that Muhammad learned she’d also been invited to the State of the Union address.

She said her children – Jaden, 10, and Amayyah, 6 – will stay in Charlotte while Muhammad and her husband, Abdul, travel to Washington on Monday morning. On Sunday, she said she still hadn’t bought an outfit yet to wear to the event.

“I’m still in shock,” she said. “It’s such an honor. I did say (in the letter) that I would love to meet him and shake his hand. I put it out in the universe hoping that it would happen, but I wasn’t sure that it would.”