Over the past 10 years, Jackie Gorski and Tom Alberts set out to launch new careers.
But they've been derailed by a series of health care challenges. This year, they will end up earning only about $26,000, a quarter of what they made a decade ago. Like millions of other once-comfortable middle-class families, they are struggling to stay afloat.
Until 2004, Ms. Gorski, 49, worked as a computer systems analyst, including several years at PPG. After that job was downsized, she went back to school, getting two associate degrees in floriculture, horticulture and landscape design from Westmoreland County Community College in 2007.
"I wanted to capitalize on my [information technology] skills and move in another direction other than manufacturing," she said. While she was happy to be working in landscape design for the Silvis Group, she said in early October that she was "seriously underemployed."
She didn't know the half of it.
Later that month, when she told her employer she might need some time off for family duties, "He said, 'Well you know, since we're slowing down, why don't you just take a layoff and come back in the spring like you did last year?' And I said, 'But I didn't do that last year.' "
That's how she found out she was being laid off.
Mr. Alberts, 52, left a job in the 1990s as a fusion energy scientist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, hoping to become a full-time Web developer. He moved to North Huntingdon after meeting Ms. Gorski and falling in love with her, thinking he would develop his new career here.
In 2001, they found out her mother, 85-year-old Emily Gorski, had Parkinson's disease, and he has been her primary caretaker since then, while also trying to do freelance Web work about 20 hours a week.
During one recent interview, Mr. Alberts patiently fed Mrs. Gorski, who was slumped to the side in her chair and was barely able to communicate.
Jackie Gorski said that while her unexpected layoff will give her more time to spend with her mother, she can't become the primary caretaker because she doesn't have the upper-body strength to move her easily.
The couple lives in the small home Ms. Gorski grew up in, south of Route 30 in North Huntingdon, because she wanted her mother to be in familiar surroundings.
"I had promised mom when she was diagnosed with Parkinson's that I would take care of her," Ms. Gorski said, "but we really didn't know what would happen down the road."
She estimates that she will be able to get about half what she earned in unemployment benefits, and hopes to be called back to work in March.
Mr. Alberts believes he could earn $50,000 to $100,000 a year if he were able to work on Web design full time, but he is content with the decision they've made.
"I have a tremendous amount of frustration and stress," Mr. Alberts said, "but I wouldn't do things differently. If I had taken a full-time job instead of taking care of Emily, she'd be gone by now."
In the past 10 years, he has spent his 401K savings of about $50,000 to help meet expenses. Ms. Gorski has spent about the same amount from her 401K, draining about half of it.
Two years ago, Mr. Alberts found out he has celiac disease, an intestinal absorption disorder that requires him to follow a gluten-free diet.
And just a few weeks ago, Ms. Gorski was told she has a precancerous breast condition known as lobular carcinoma in situ. It doesn't require treatment yet, but she does need to be monitored regularly with X-rays and MRIs to make sure it doesn't develop into a malignancy.
During her layoff, Ms. Gorski will be able to keep her health insurance through her employer if she continues the premium payments of $200 a month. But adding Mr. Alberts would cost $600 more, and they can't afford that.
"If I get a serious illness, it's over," Mr. Alberts said. "We're already in the poorhouse," his wife added. "That would make it worse."
From coordinating Emily Gorski's medical care to shopping for gluten-free foods to worrying about Ms. Gorski's new diagnosis, she and Mr. Alberts have found themselves pulled on all sides by America's expensive, complicated health care system, which many economists believe is the major challenge facing the U.S. over the next several decades.
Mr. Alberts said he's no expert on the subject, but his personal experiences have convinced him that "the present [health care] system does not function well -- it's very expensive and prices are escalating way beyond inflation. A lot of Americans are unhealthy in their lifestyle, but there's also corporate greed in the cost of medical care."
Ms. Gorski has been struck by how costly medications are. "Some drugs are not available and some are very expensive. Why is it we have such a problem with pharmaceuticals where other industrialized countries don't seem to have that? They're driving costs up so high that you can't afford to be well."
While it may look as though the two have a cloud over their heads, they laugh easily, and they don't complain to others about their challenges.
"Sometimes I'm bitter," Ms. Gorski said, "but that is just part and parcel of trying to make ends meet."
Do they still think they are middle class?
"We've got college degrees and that way we're more middle class," Mr. Alberts said. "But income-wise, we're really lower class."
Mark Roth: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1130.