Eighty-year-old Marian Beckham's husband had died two months ago. A homemaker, she was entitled to collect one-half of her husband's Social Security benefits. She was too grief-striken the first month after his death to notice she hadn't received her usual check. But after the second month, she became concerned and called the Social Security Administration. After weaving through an intimidating web of voice mail options, she finally reached a live human being. The employee researched the complaint and then informed her, "You haven't received a check because according to our computer you're dead. You died two months ago."
"My husband died two months ago, but I'm very much alive and I need that check."
"Unless you can prove you're alive, we can't re-instate your social security," the unhelpful clerk informed her.
"I'm taking on the phone with you and I'm not calling from Heaven. Doesn't that prove I'm alive?" Marian asked. "It's obviously a computer error."
"Or an imposter trying to steal Marian Beckham's identity to swindle a check out of us. We see it all the time," the clerk said.
Dumbfounded, my patient ended the call and decided to drive to the Social Security Admininistration to resolve the matter. Surely, if she showed up in person, with a driver's license and birth certificate, they'd re-instate her check.
No such luck. After waiting in line until her knees needed replacing, she presented her documents to the cynical clerk. The clerk shoved the documents back at Marian. "This doesn't prove a thing. You could have stolen these."
Marian pointed at the picture on her license. "Look, that's my picture and name right there. An imposter wouldn't look like me."
The clerk shrugged. "How do I know you're not Marian's identical twin trying to steal her identity?"
"Cause I don't have a sister." Nerves frayed, Marian snapped, "What's wrong with you people? It's obvious my name was inadvertently changed to dead when my husband died two months ago. It's a computer glitch and I want it fixed. I need that check to buy food and medicine."
The clerk crossed her arms. "All I know is, our computer says Marian L. Beckham is dead and until you prove she isn't dead and that you are Marian L Beckham, I can't re-instate your Social Security checks."
Marian scowled. "How do I prove I'm not dead if standing here, in person, with my birth certificate and driver's license aren't enough?"
The clerk pursed her lips. "Get your personal physician to write a certified letter testifying you are who you say you are and that you're not dead. I would consider that proof that the computer made a mistake."
That's where I came in. Marian explained her frustruating encounter with the Social Security Administration and asked me to write a letter. Below is the oddest letter I have ever written:
December 22, 1999
Dear Social Security Administration,
Marian L. Beckham has been my patient for ten years. She came into my office today requesting a letter stating she is not dead. Therefore, I, Sally Burbank M.D., do hereby legally testify that Marian L. Beckham is not dead, nor has she ever been dead. Please re-instate her Social Security checks.
Sally Burbank M.D.