Brian Santa Maria was screwed.
Then in his late 20s,Santa Maria was an uninsured writer/actor doing improv theater in New York City and writing satire for The Onion. The second of four children to a railroad engineer dad and a night-shift nurse mother, Santa Maria was sick. Parts of his body were malfunctioning.
"My nervous system was shutting down," he says. "When you don't have health insurance, finding doctors to see you, it's rough. Most won't."
Santa Maria made a contact with a person through the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG/AFTRA) union. They coached him how to navigate the nation's unfriendly health care system.
"Basically, how to get treatment at the hospitals without insurance," Santa Maria explains. "It's not a way to not pay for it. I still get bills. I found doctors who would see me after hours, under the table. I'd go to them and tell them I was dying. It was getting worse, and I didn't think I could make it through the day."
It was as if his body was in revolt. Santa Maria found himself at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. One test lead to another to another to too many.
"At first they think I have a slipped a disc. Then they think I broke my back. Then they think I have sciatica, then they think I got Lupus," he says. "They come back again and say it's not Lupus, but they think it's ALS, although there was a possibility I have AIDS, so they test me for AIDS. It's like, Jesus!"
The hospital resident had good and bad news one morning. Santa Maria AIDS' test came back negative. The soon-to-be doctor handed the patient a sheet of paper. At the top it read "Lou Gehrig's Disease."
What do you know about ALS? he asked Santa Maria about the incurable neurodegenerative disease, in which people may lose the ability to speak, eat, move and breathe.
"I told him 'I know that it kills you,'" he recalls. "'That's what we think you have' is what he said. They didn't give me a referral. It was like, 'There's your diagnosis,' and pushed me out of the hospital."
But Santa Maria was lucky. His parents moved him out of New York and would eventually get him to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
A neurologist was suspicious about the diagnosis. She agreed that something was killing Santa Maria, but didn't think it was ALS. She admitted she'd been wrong before, and would be wrong again.
It was a moment burned into Santa Maria's mind forever.
"It gave me this feeling, a weird sort of calm," he says. "It gave me a confidence to know that from a person, who was smart and good enough at their job to know what they don't know. It was motivating, a cool moment for me."
Mayo experts would soon discern Santa Maria didn't have ALS, but polyneuropathy, a disease affecting peripheral nerves in about the same areas on both sides of the body, in which people may suffer from weakness, numbness, and burning pain.
"It means 'screwed up nervous system,' I think," he says.
In the eight years since his diagnosis, Santa Maria and his wife have moved to Eden Prairie, where they are parents to a young daughter.
The 36-year-old works as a corporate creative director. He isn't shy about saying he's good at humor. Writing it. Employing it to get through life's saddest moments.
Santa Maria, who considers himself an "Eisenhower Democrat" and Al Franken "30 years ago," writing credits include the TV series "The Regalist" and "Sit Down With the Stars," as well as almost two dozen episodes on "The Onion News Network." He thinks what’s happening in our government now isn't funny.
The first-term political aspirant is a DFL candidate for Minnesota's 3rd congressional district, a crude half-circle that wraps around the western Minneapolis suburbs from Bloomington to Minnetrista to Coon Rapids. According to Santa Maria, Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Eden Prairie), is seriously unfunny. Santa Maria believes the incumbent, whose GOP party-line votes and reputation for being inaccessible to constituents make him ripe for dethroning.
"Erik Paulsen does nothing for me," reads one of Santa Maria's campaign t-shirts.
He's basing his darkhorse challenge (Santa Maria says he'll accept contributions of no more than $500) on a simple platform — family health, family leave, and a family income — and taking his message to voters.
Paulsen's platform, according to Santa Maria, "is whatever Grover Norquist sends him in an email in the morning. We have to get out the message Erik Paulsen doesn't care about you guys. He cares about his donors."
In sharing his real struggles getting sick and seeking treatment as an uninsured American, Santa Maria's hopes voters will sense an authenticity absent in the incumbent. Santa Maria aims to fill that vacuum one conversation at a time.
"Either this Republican Party is full of enough people who love Donald Trump," he says, "or it's full of enough people who don't give enough of a shit to stop him.
"Erik Paulsen has done a good job messaging against himself lately. He doesn't want to meet with constituents. We need to let everybody know that."
Santa Maria looks to shine where past Paulsen's past DFL challengers have failed.
"Candidates against him in the past," he says, "would run ads that would say 'Erik Paulsen might be a nice guy, but....' You would never see a Coke ad ending with saying 'Pepsi might be refreshing, but...'
"It's terrible. It's just terrible messaging and it's not true, to let him own the message he's a nice guy because he shakes a lot of hands, that he can pop up a table up in Cub Foods for 10 minutes and act like he's talking to people thing. Erik Paulsen still wants to take 55,000 people's healthcare away. He's still doing nothing to check an out-of-control person in the executive. Those are not 'nice,' things so there's no way I will resign to him an inch on that."
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