Terelle Terry has a different moniker for the "RX Express" - she calls it the "Overground Railroad." The appellation, borrowed from the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape to Canada before the Civil War, fits Terelle's persona: It incorporates both her knowledge of history and her activist inclinations.
Terelle, 70, has fought for change all her life. She sees health care reform as one of the major issues facing Californians. She is only too happy to be riding the rails to Canada on a mission that eventually will smash through the wall of greed and corruption that barricades Californians from receiving the health care they need and deserve.
Terelle has a personal reason as well for making the journey. She has osteoporosis, and has broken both arms as a result. "Not at the same time, thank goodness," she says. "I want to prevent more breaks. Many people break their hips, which may result in permanent disability, even death."
Terelle also is on a fixed income ("It isn't fixed," she says; "it's a shrinking income" because it stays the same while everything else goes up) and has been unable to afford a crucial prescription drug.
She hopes to get that medication in Canada, at $53 for a one-month supply. It would cost $100 here.
Terelle, an articulate, well-read and humorous woman, comes from a family that has been in California since the gold rush. She took a detour herself to Utah, but came back to the Golden State. She has a B.A. in anthropology from Sacramento State University, and has taught, written for newspapers and magazines, and worked for the Departments of Rehabilitation, Consumer Affairs and Corrections.
"I've had a lot of different jobs," she says in an understatement. She retired five years ago.
She has three daughters, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
If the resume leaves you gasping for air, it becomes all the more surprising when you consider that Terelle contracted polio when she was 12, in 1946.
It, and her other ailments, clearly didn't keep her from living a full life, but "it slowed me down a lot," Terelle says. She tires easily, and has a partially paralyzed right leg.
Like many people, Terelle would just as soon not take any medications at all, and tries to stay healthy through exercise and diet. But her illnesses finally got to the point where she decided that "I really had to take something." Her doctor prescribed miacalcin. Terelle was ready to partake - until she saw the price tag: $100.
"I couldn't afford it," she says. "My rent went from $425 to $725 in three years." Other costs are going up. "I'm just getting squeezed. I can't afford to subscribe to the daily newspaper. I heard about the train and said, 'Oh Boy.'"
Terelle hopes to buy at least three months work of miacalcin, and set in motion a procedure whereby she would be able to get it from Canada for the rest of her life. "I can't afford to have $100 ripped out of my pocket" by buying the medication here, she says.
Beyond that, Terelle hopes to educate people, and join the growing movement for reform. She sees the issue as larger than herself. "This is for prescription drugs for every person of every age," she says.
Terelle, who has been "guilty of civil disobedience" in the past, participated in demonstrations and is a member of the Grey Panthers, says people must act. "We need to do this," she says. She quotes Savonarola, who said "unless an idea is imbued with action, it doesn't really exist."
Californians must come to understand that it is cheaper to extend health care to all than it is to keep the present system, Terelle says. There are numerous steps the government can take, including bulk purchasing of prescription drugs, and not putting up with advertising by pharmaceuticals. "The single biggest benefit would be to stop (them) from advertising," she says. "They're spending billions."
"This is inextricably linked with politics," she adds. She says Californians should support legislation such as the bill by State Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles that would provide health care for all Californians.
"There has been an assault on the elderly, the poor, the disabled and the middle class," Terelle says, but she adds that it can be turned around. "We can prevent illness. We can prevent tragedy."
Hitching a ride on the RX express - or, if you prefer, the Overground Railroad, "smuggling" health care back into the U.S. from Canada - is a step along that potholed road.
And the Golden State is the perfect place to begin to reform the system. California, Terelle notes, is the cutting edge of American culture. The disability movement started here, and resulted in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
If California reforms its health care, it may lead the nation to fair health care, not just for the rich, but fair care for all, Terelle believes.