“It could have been me,” is how Plymouth State University Student Katie Saraiva, a senior childhood studies major from Riverside, R.I., reacted when she first read about fellow PSU student Michelle Morse in the student newspaper The Clock last spring. It is what she did next that will be featured in an interview scheduled to air on New Hampshire Public Television’s NH Outlook at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, February 20.
Michelle Morse was a full-time student at Plymouth State University when she was diagnosed with colon cancer in December 2003. At the recommendation of her doctors, Morse was going to reduce her course load in order to focus on her treatments. That is, until her family discovered that in doing so, she would lose her health insurance coverage.
Not wanting any other New Hampshire families to have to make a choice between their children’s education or maintaining their health insurance, Ann Marie Morse, Michelle’s mother, went to the state legislature for help. Michelle’s Law, HB 37, provides for a 12-month extension of coverage for full-time students on a medical leave of absence. It passed unanimously in the New Hampshire House of Representatives earlier this year, making headlines across the nation and around the globe.
“I was in shock,” says Saraiva, “I couldn’t believe it was true. Michelle was the same age as me, same major as me, and I was already involved with the Cancer Walk at PSU so her issue was important to me. I contacted her mother, Ann Marie Morse, and asked what I could do to help.”
As a result of the phone call, Saraiva testified before the New Hampshire House of Representatives Commerce Committee last March; has gone to all the hearings, including the most recent one before the New Hampshire Senate’s Bank and Insurance committee earlier this week, and spearheaded a signature campaign on the PSU campus last fall supporting the passage of HB 37.
“Katie has been very proactive in lending her support and raising awareness on campus,” affirms PSU Vice President for Student Affairs Dick Hage. Along with Saraiva, he was interviewed by NHPTV regarding his testimony in support of the HB 37 on behalf of PSU.
“We knew about Michelle’s illness and her family’s dilemma before it became a legislative issue,” states Hage. “Together we worked with the family and the Academic Affairs staff to coordinate her ongoing PSU career.
“Michelle was vibrant, positive, upbeat and energetic,” Hage continues. “She had a fighting, survival spirit and was determined cancer was not going to get in her way. Michelle was going to get her degree and she did.”
Associate Professor of Education Marianne True agrees, “At the same time Michelle was finishing her degree, she was fighting for her life. You knew she was working 110 percent on getting better, but when I met with her it was always about the profession. She just wanted to be a teacher, and while her treatments may have thinned her hair and made her thinner in weight, she never lost her spirit.”
Morse graduated in May 2005 with a Bachelor of Science degree in childhood studies, teacher certification (K-8) and reading options. She completed her student teaching at Bakersville Elementary School in Manchester, and was featured in an article about PSU’s Professional Development School partnership with Bakersville in the fall 2005 edition of Plymouth Magazine.
“Michelle had to make a choice to stay at PSU because her family couldn’t afford the premiums above what they were already paying if she didn’t,” notes Hage. “It was not the optimal choice.” Hage says that over the years there have been other students who had to leave because of medical conditions, and in many instances the health insurance gets dropped when the student is not enrolled full time.
“Michelle was an individual who represents a segment of the population that insurance companies need to address,” says Hage. “These are individuals who are educating themselves and working toward independence. They are our future and society can’t afford to abandon them.”
Morse was 22 years old when she passed away on November 10, 2005. Hage will be participating in a panel discussion with lawmakers advocating for Michelle’s Law on Monday, February 20. The panel is being hosted by New Hampshire Public Television and will air at 7:30 p.m. that evening on NH Outlook.
Plymouth State University, founded in 1871, is a coeducational, residential university with an enrollment of approximately 4,000 undergraduate students and 1,500 graduate students. A regional comprehensive university, PSU preserves the brick-and-ivy look of its New England small college heritage while integrating state-of-the-art technology and facilities into an attractive, contemporary campus design and dynamic educational environment. PSU is a cultural center for the area, as well, with numerous concerts, lectures, art exhibitions, films, dance and theatre performances on campus.