By Peter Morley
My name is Peter Morley. I am a patient and a patient advocate. In the last two years, I have traveled to D.C. from New York City twenty-five times to share my personal story and to advocate for thousands who shared their health care stories with me. I have met with Democratic and Republican Members of Congress, alike. I have worked with the offices and healthcare staffers, with almost 2/3 of Congress, and a multitude of legislators. I have had the privilege to create digital media with members to amplify the need to protect healthcare and calls to action.
But the most impactful moment of my entire body of advocacy, was meeting Congressman Elijah Cummings. On my most recent trip to D.C., October 17, 2019, I was shocked to learn, like the rest of the world, of Congressman Cummings’ passing.
I was devastated. I cried. My heart was broken. And here’s why.
I used to be very private about my personal healthcare. In 2007, I was permanently disabled from an accident and have undergone four spinal surgeries. In 2011, I survived kidney cancer and fought my way into remission after losing part of my right kidney. In 2013, I was diagnosed with Lupus, which causes me severe fatigue and most days it’s a struggle to get out of bed. I now manage over 10 pre-existing conditions, take 38 medications, and receive 12 biologic infusions to slow the progression of my disease.
In July 2017, my advocacy was further amplified the day I decided to travel to Washington, D.C. and advocate in Congress. It coincided with the Senate vote on the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Thankfully the ACA was saved. I documented my spontaneous day trip to the Capital on Twitter, and people began reaching out to me, asking my help in sharing their own personal healthcare stories with Congress. I have continued to return to D.C. on average once per month through the present.
In 2019, I had the honor of Testifying for the House twice. First, on February 6 for Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (CT-03) of the House Appropriations Sub-Committee of Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies. The second time on July 10 for Chairman Cummings (MD-07) of the House Oversight Committee. Both times I was asked to testify as a patient and witness to the sabotage of the ACA by the Trump Administration.
I had met and worked closely with Congresswoman DeLauro’s office, but I had never met Congressman Cummings. I knew him from his role and leader of his committee. I was an incredible fan. He was a force. I regularly watched his committee hearings on C-SPAN to listen to him speak. I he brought me comfort. My Congresswoman, Carolyn Maloney (NY-12) also serves on the committee; which only gave me another reason to watch.
I am a newbie in testifying in Congress. But from my first experience in February, I quickly realized there’s an immense amount of preparation. You work closely with committee staffers and have to prepare a double-spaced written testimony (of any length) and an oral testimony (which is generally a summary of your written statement but can be no longer than five minutes). Congressman Cummings opened his testimony with words that deeply resonated with me. He turned to me and the other patient witnesses and said, “Now that I’m on a walker, and I’ve learned what it is to be disabled. It is a tremendous task in most instances to get dressed. I GOT it!”
The empathy was profound.
But he continued, “I often say to our (patient) witnesses who have come here to share your personal stories, thank you…for taking your pain, turning it into a passion to do your purpose. Pain. Passion Purpose.”
The Congressman eloquently and succinctly described what I felt in my heart. I had not known such compassion. He also looked right at me as he was saying it. But it wasn’t at me, it was directed at my soul. Because that’s who the Congressman was. A man of infinite wisdom, with inconceivable understanding and benevolence.
During the hearing, I had a coughing fit due to my health conditions. Congressman Cummings stopped the meeting and said, “”Mr. Morley, are you OK? Your health is number one. Whatever you need let us know!”
The hearing ran late, and when it finished, I wanted to meet him personally. I approached him and he immediately waved me over. I got to shake his hand, thank him for everything he does to protect our democracy, and he indulged me in a picture. I’m reminded of his gentleness, his kindness, and his strength. He personally thanked me encouraged me to keep fighting both for my personal health and my advocacy in D.C.
Those of you who have testified in Congress know how grueling and stressful it can be, but it is so gratifying and rewarding doing service for your country. And getting to meet the Congressman made it that more special.
Fast-forward to October 17, I’m traveling on an Amtrak train, and read of Congressman Cummings’ passing from a friend’s text. I’m distraught. Those words he said to me about pain, passion, and purpose, he was referring to not only me, but himself. Then it dawned on me, these 25 trips I have been making, I was advocating for him as well, as I represent all Americans, even our elected officials. I’m less than an hour outside of the Capital. I’m heartbroken, I have commitments throughout the next two days with leaders of Congress. I found the strength inside myself to proceed, because this is precisely what the Congressman would want me to do. I dedicated my 25th trip to him and it was because of that reflection that I did not turn around and go home. He believed in me, so I had to find solace and comfort in that.
And I did. For the next two days, I powered through over 20 meetings and the creation of countless digital media, with my broken heart. On October 18, there was a memorial for Congressman Cummings in the House Oversight Committee Room.
I stopped by in between meetings to pay my respects and to offer my condolences to the staffers of both his committee and personal offices. I spoke with members of the Oversight Committee. The freshmen members seemed to be affected the most. It turns out, the Congressman spent a great deal of time mentoring them. I found so much peace as I listened to their stories of what the Congressman meant to them. And that got me through the remainder of my trip.
I did not know Congressman Cummings personally outside of that hearing. He left an indelible impression on me, as I know he did with many others. I’ll remember his kindness. I’ll remember his strength. I’ll remember him telling me: I’ve taken my pain, turned it into passion, for a purpose. My partner, Jerry had the invitation from Congressman Cummings to testify, framed for my birthday. It now sits on a wall in my apartment near where I do a lot of my patient advocacy. It was there before his passing, but now I feel the Congressman is always watching over me.
He has forever inspired me to keep fighting for my own life and for the advocacy of others. Rest in power, Congressman Cummings.