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The Obamacare Kid Grows Up

Courtesy of Gina Owens
Marci Owens with President Obama and Gina Owens, Marci's Grandmother

 This story originally aired on October 15, 2016. 

Sometimes what we do as children traps us in time. The rest of the world will forever equate you with what you did when you were young, even as you grow beyond whatever it was that gave you that label in the first place. This is what happened to 17-year-old Marcelas Owens of Seattle.


When Marcelas was 8 years old, his mother, Tiffany Owens, died from pulmonary hypertension. This is when your lungs have high blood pressure. People can live a long time with this condition if they get the right care. But when it’s not treated, it’s the heart that usually gives out.


Tiffany started missing too much time at work. Eventually she was fired and lost her health insurance. In her final months, Tiffany was an activist for health care reform.


Once she was gone, Marcelas continued his mother’s work. He became a poster child for the movement as President Obama pushed for the passage of The Affordable Care Act.


This chubby faced, African-American boy with a short afro told his mother’s story to hundreds of people at rallies, he made appearances on cable news shows. Lawmakers, such as Senator Patty Murray, were repeating his heart-wrenching tale.


Marcelas became known as the "Obamacare kid.”  Dressed in a suit and tie that matched President Obama’s, Marcelas was there at the White House when the legislation was signed into law.


After the law’s passage, newspapers and Cable news shows would call him every year leading up to March 23, the law’s anniversary.


Marcelas says, “With all of the check-ins with media, I felt kind of trapped by the Obamacare kid thing. Because when they were asking me how I was doing, I had to say, ‘I’m doing fine; school’s good.’ They had sort of an idea of who I was. I sort of felt like I couldn’t be who I was. I felt like I had to sort of  keep the image of the Obamacare kid thing. And I sort of let that thing take over.”


Last spring, the requests started to come in, again. CNN reporter John Blake called Marsalas.

Blake asked Marcelas, if he had anything else to say. Marcelas paused for a moment and said, “Yes.” But before Marcelas answered that question, he checked in with his grandmother, Gina Owens, to see if it was okay to share something very personal with this global news outlet.


Gina nodded that is was okay. So, Marcelas got back on the phone and told Blake that he isn’t Marcelas anymore, his name is Marci. He, now she, identifies as a young woman. It’s a feeling she’s had since she was six years old.


When President Obama heard about Marci’s news, he invited her to a Pride event at the White House. This trip was all about Marci. Health insurance was not on the agenda. Marci wore a white dress — sort of a shift — with a geometric black and red pattern. Her hair was bobbed. While she and Obama did not coordinate their outfits this time (no matching ties) one thing is similar in the photo of them together. They both have enormous smiles.


Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.