Telling himself the pain was nothing, he walked to Sweet Melissa, a bakery on Court Street, where he made $6 an hour plus tips. He had come to New York from Mississippi, hoping to become a designermaybe in theater, maybe fashionbut for the time being, he paid his rent (barely) by serving pastries. "Health insurance wasn't even an option," Ondrejcak told me recently. "I was flying through my savings, trying to get a career started. I was doing a lot of assisting designers who were doing great work, but I wasn't making anything. The last thing I'm going to do is spend $300 or whatever on insurance, you know?" He paused before adding, "I'm a healthy person, I rarely get sick. I run, I do yoga. I take all the vitamins. Honestly, I never thought about it."
At Sweet Melissa, the pain only worsened. But what to do? How to even find a doctor? Only one-third of the uninsured have a regular physician, and he was not among them. He searched the Yellow Pages for doctors in Brooklyn with the prefix gastro near their names; most wouldn't take him. Eventually, he found a public clinica friend had been therethat recommended a specialist in Bay Ridge. "It's probably ulcers," the doctor said, after Ondrejcak said he suspected ulcers. He was given a prescription for Nexium ($73) along with a depressing bill of $200 for the visit. "Basically all the money I'd made that week. I left keeling over in pain but took the bus home because I was so broke," he told me. He swallowed the Nexium with a swig of Maalox and went to bed, hoping the pill would rewire whatever was wrong.