In the heart of Gallup, New Mexico, two lives intertwined in a story of love, perseverance, and a struggle for survival. Calvin Tsosie Jr. and Stephline Tsosie are not your average couple. Their journey has been marked by relentless battles against illness, relentless care for each other, and a desperate plea for change. They are emblematic of the countless New Mexicans who, in the absence of a comprehensive Paid Family & Medical Leave (PFML) policy, are left to navigate the treacherous waters of illness without a safety net.

Calvin Tsosie Jr., 42, and Stephline Tsosie, 43, found love in the vast landscapes of Gallup. Their story began as friendship, and over time, it blossomed into a deep and enduring bond. Life was vibrant, filled with concerts, travel, and dreams of a future together. But, as life so often does, it had other plans.

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Stephline, once an active sergeant at the local jail, was struck by a devastating kidney disease. Her life, once bustling with energy, slowly transformed into a battle for survival. “I used to work at the jail. I was a sergeant at night,” Stephline recalls. “I was very active. But when I got this kidney disease, it really changed my life because I was really active, and I wasn’t lazy or anything.”

Calvin and Stephline Tsosie from Gallup, NM.

As the kidney disease advanced, Stephline’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. Her legs bore the marks of her struggle, covered in blisters and sores. Calvin, her steadfast partner, was with her every step of the way. But he, too, was witnessing a change, not just in her health but in their lives.

Over the years, Stephline’s condition necessitated the intake of multiple medications. Her daily routine became an intricate dance with pills and doctor’s appointments. For a while, it seemed manageable, but the last decade has witnessed a sharp decline. “Just about every day, appointments got more frequent, not just in town, but now it’s out of town that we have to go to a lot,” Calvin reflects. “Now she’s going through surgeries, her first surgery, actually. And that’s kind of freaked out a little also.”

As her primary caregiver, Calvin found himself shouldering the burden of ensuring her well-being. “I take her to dialysis. Then that’s when my schedule starts. I go to work, work halfway into the night, come home, sleep a few hours, do the same thing the next day,” he says. “It’s back and forth all the time. There’s no break for me. Never at all.”

For caregivers like Calvin, the toll of their responsibilities extends beyond the emotional and physical. It also impacts their professional lives. He reflects on how his work schedule has been turned upside down. “I used to work all the time, three jobs before I got into the trucking industry. I used to work day, nights, whatever I could get,” he says. “But now it’s changed my lifestyle where I’m taking days off. Not just days, but, you know, maybe sometimes a couple days, a few days off. And this is all changing my work schedule now.”

For millions of caregivers across New Mexico and the United States, Calvin’s story is all too familiar. The weight of providing care to a loved one with a serious illness is a responsibility that often leads to a profound impact on employment, income, and overall well-being.

While their story is unique to them, it resonates with countless others who face the same difficult choices and challenges. A Paid Family & Medical Leave (PFML) program is not just an idea for them; it’s a lifeline that could provide much-needed financial support and stability during their darkest hours.

“I’m doing both at the same time,” Calvin says. “I take her to Albuquerque all the time, come home, sleep for a few hours, go to work. And then she has another appointment in Albuquerque. We got to go the next day, come back again, and then go to work again. It’s back and forth all the time.”

PFML would allow Calvin to take the necessary time off to provide the care that Stephline desperately needs without sacrificing his livelihood. It would offer a financial safety net, alleviating the stress of mounting medical bills, travel expenses, and the hidden costs of caregiving that are often overlooked.

The challenges faced by Calvin and Stephline extend far beyond their partnership. Their journey has rippled through their extended family, leaving no one unaffected. “I’m married, and he’s my main support,” Stephline shares. “And he’s also the one who brings in the money. When I got sick, then how I am now, he had to really step it up and he really had to learn a lot of things about my condition.”

Their boys, too, have seen their lives transformed. They’ve had to grow up faster than their years, taking on responsibilities no child should bear. “My boys too, even though they’re old enough to work, he still helps them out,” Stephline says. “He helps out my mom, my dad, everybody. Now that he doesn’t have the income coming in, then we don’t have anything to give. And we just have to suffer with what we have, which is hardly anything.”

The stories of Calvin and Stephline are not isolated incidents but emblematic of a nationwide crisis. The absence of comprehensive Paid Family & Medical Leave in the United States leaves millions of individuals and families grappling with impossible choices and financial hardship.

As we hear their story, we are reminded that the need for PFML is not an abstract concept but a matter of human dignity and social justice. It is a necessity that can no longer be delayed.

In 2024, as we stand at the crossroads of change, it’s imperative that we call on our lawmakers to pass Paid Family & Medical Leave legislation. Let the stories of Calvin and Stephline serve as a rallying cry for a future where families no longer have to choose between caring for their loved ones and financial stability.

Our society cannot truly progress until we acknowledge the struggles of those like Calvin and Stephline and work collectively to provide the support and infrastructure needed to ensure that no one faces these challenges alone. The time for PFML is now.

This story was produced and published thanks to the support of the American Heart Association.