Background: Understanding individuals' experience of accessing care and tending to various other needs during chronic illness in a rural context is important for health systems aiming to increase access to healthcare and protect poor populations from unreasonable financial hardship. This study explored the impact on households of access to free healthcare and how they managed to meet needs during chronic illness. Methods: Rich data from the life stories of individuals from 22 households in rural south-western Uganda collected in 2009 were analysed. Results: The data revealed that individuals and households depend heavily on their social relations in order to meet their needs during illness, including accessing the free healthcare and maintaining vital livelihood activities. The life stories illustrated ways in which households draw upon social relations to achieve the broader social protection necessary to prevent expenses becoming catastrophic, but also demonstrated the uncertainty in relying solely on informal relations. Conclusion: Improving access to healthcare in a rural context greatly depends on broader social protection. Thus, the informal social protection that already exists in the form of strong reciprocal social relations must be acknowledged, supported and included in health policy planning.