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A woman, a banana and a $120,000 question about what a life is worth
Aruzhan Toleubay on the Florida International University campus in North Miami, Fla., on Dec. 13, 2019. Toleubay, the college student in the picture taking a photo of the now viral bruised banana taped to the wall with a piece of duct tape at Art Basel in Miami Beach, is bald from chemotherapy and had recently suspended treatments because she maxed out the annual limit on her health insurance, with her latest bill totaling: $201,987.85. Scott McIntyre/The New York Times.

by Frances Robles

KEY WEST (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- It was a photo of a photo, and it was too good to resist: an image of a buzz-haired woman using her cellphone to capture a bruised banana stuck to the wall with a piece of duct tape at Art Basel in Miami Beach.

The news of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s banana — which sold for six figures — had come to represent the absurdity of the art world. The photo of the woman, taken by freelance photographer Rhona Wise, was published in The New York Times and The Washington Post. It appeared on websites in places like Cuba, Russia, China, Italy, Greece and the Middle East.

The caption identified the woman in it as “a visitor.”

But now another story is emerging about that photograph shared around the world, one steeped in irony about the hotly debated (and quickly eaten) fruit that fetched such a hefty sum. The 20-year-old college student in the picture, Aruzhan Toleubay, is bald from chemotherapy. And she had recently suspended treatments because she maxed out the annual limit on her health insurance.

Her latest bill: $201,987.85.

The photo “brings to light a much larger discussion,” her Florida International University adviser, Lorna Baez, wrote while publicizing a GoFundMe effort, “not about defining what is art, but what is life, and the costs to preserve it.”

Toleubay is fine with us telling her story, but she wants to make clear: She is not throwing shade — not at the University of Miami hospital she owes, not at the insurance company and especially not at the banana or the artist.

“It is funny how people see modern art different. It inspires me so much,” she said of Cattelan’s work. “He is a comedian artist. That was his unique way of showing himself.”

Toleubay looks on the bright side. If three people are willing to pay $120,000 or more for a banana, she said, then surely there are people who will help with her hospital expenses.

Toleubay moved from Kazakhstan to the U.S. in 2016 to study hospitality management at Florida International University, a public school with campuses in the Miami area. In April, she felt flulike symptoms and had a pain in her rear that felt like hemorrhoids.

It was acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“What are you talking about?” she remembers telling the physician.

Toleubay wanted to go home, but doctors told her she was too sick to travel.

Her mother, who lost her job last year after a serious car crash, sold several of the family’s assets, including a car and an apartment, to come to Florida to be with her daughter.

The blood cancer was aggressive, and her condition was dire, Toleubay said. She was hospitalized for 40 days this spring but managed to recover enough to take two courses in the fall semester. Then the bills started coming. She found out that her student insurance policy has a half-million-dollar annual cap.

Florida International University gave her a scholarship to cover her tuition, but Toleubay said the hospital informed her that each round of chemotherapy would cost $34,000, and that the insurance company had ceased paying. She already owes $205,000. She suspended her treatment about three weeks ago, with plans to resume in January, when her insurance kicks back in again.

After The Times asked the University of Miami hospital about her case Friday, Toleubay said her doctor called to say that the hospital administration decided she must resume treatment. It is unclear, she said, who will pay for that.

“Providing appropriate care to our patients at all times is our top priority,” the hospital said in a statement. “In some cases, we work with our patients in navigating their insurance coverage, always putting their care first.”

Toleubay, the statement said, has been in remission since June.

Her friends at school started the GoFundMe in May, and it has raised more than $25,000. One of Toleubay’s teachers, restaurant and nightclub owner David Grutman, made a sizable donation.

Then the photo was taken while she was volunteering at Art Basel, an annual art fair in Miami Beach. Her supporters used the viral story of the banana and the high price it fetched to help publicize their effort, using the hashtag #TheRealBananaStory.

“I thought that if people knew the true story of this picture, we could actually put our energy and efforts in helping her cover the expenses of a treatment that is currently saving her life,” Baez, the director of academics for international students, said.

Toleubay exudes a positive attitude, and talks excitedly about her plans to study event planning.

“The picture went so viral, but it did not bother me,” she said. “My friends started to say how ironic this is. Yes. Of course, it is: the value of life and the value of art.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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