It was a chilly night in November 2008. My oldest daughter and I were in Albany, New York visiting Sienna College. She was a junior in high school, the MVP of her lacrosse team, and Sienna was a D-1 school. Fast as grease lightening and tough as nails, she and her best friend also broke the gender barrier at Exeter High School when they earned a spot as the first two females on the boys wrestling team.
In the afternoon, we took a tour of the campus. She was hesitant about the Franciscan brothers wearing long rope belted brown robes and Jesus sandals. At the entrance to every dormitory was a cross that made her feel uncomfortable. She wasn’t raised with religion although we attended a Unitarian church for a short time. I was raised Catholic so I told her what I knew about St. Francis of Assisi, his vow of poverty and his love for all God’s creatures. At the reception in the cafeteria I dragged her over to one of the Friars and asked what percentage of the students were Catholic and how prevalent was the religious life on campus. He reassured us the college welcomed everyone and no one was required to attend mass.
We left the campus, checked into a Fairfield Inn, then drove to a cozy neighborhood restaurant. She had been complaining of a headache since the cafeteria reception. I told her it had been a long day, she probably needed something to eat. I convinced her to order some soup but she barely touched it. On the drive back to the hotel she curled up into a ball and started crying. When I say this was very unlike her, I truly mean it. I started getting scared.
Several months earlier she’d had a sharp pain in her calf. It wouldn’t go away. She called me at work complaining it was getting worse and nothing she did would relieve the pain. I called her pediatrician, Dr. Loh, the most wonderful doctor I’ve ever met. He was there when both my children were born and to this day they both wish he was still their doctor. I called her back and told her she had an appointment in a half hour. “Can you drive yourself there?” I asked. She said she could. Two hours later I got the word Dr. Loh had sent her over to the hospital for a CAT Scan and she had a DVT in her calf. He later did some testing and discovered she had Factor 5 Leiden, a genetic blood disorder that causes clotting. We soon learned my husband and several other family members, including my younger daughter, also have Factor 5 Leiden. It is what the insurance industry calls a preexisting condition.
This all unfolded after I was laid off from an accounting job I had with a developer whose office was five minutes from my house. I worked four days a week and had health insurance but then they sold the pool company they also owned, the company that provided my insurance, and they laid me off. I spent fourteen months on unemployment but rarely collected the checks because I kept busy with Accountemps. Temp jobs don’t offer benefits and my Cobra payments were $1250 a month. I had to use the small 401K I had to make the payments and this cost me a huge tax hit, too.
Two weeks before Lehman Brothers filed bankruptcy I scored an accounting job in a cubicle forty-five minutes from home. The benefits plan wouldn’t kick in for three months. By October, the 401k was depleted and my Cobra insurance had run out. I’d never been without insurance but I thought we could survive two months.
So now it was November and I was in Albany with my daughter curled up in a ball in the passenger seat beside me. I asked her to describe how bad the pain was. “Bad,” she said.
“Really bad? Like maybe we should go to the hospital?” I felt like the bad mother worrying about a trip to the ER without insurance.
“I don’t think we need to go to the hospital. I just need aspirin.” The thought of a blood clot or an aneurysm outweighed the financial concerns. I pulled into an all night convenience store parking lot, bought a bottle of water and some Tylenol and asked the Arab man behind the counter where the nearest hospital was. He tried to give me directions but his English wasn’t very good. He finally said, “Just take a right at the light. You see those blue signs with letter ‘haych’. You keep following. You get there.”
“Is it a good hospital?” I asked.
“Best,” and he added, very clearly, “Albany Medical Center.”
Back in the car, I gave her the aspirin and the bottle of water. She took it but then moaned, “I think we should go to the hospital.”
I followed the instructions the guy at the convenience store gave me, my hands gripping the steering wheel, my legs shaking, and found my way to the emergency room. When we checked in they asked for my insurance. I still had the card in my wallet so I handed it to the woman at the desk. I waited nervously as she typed the info, afraid of being rejected, but she finally looked up and told us to take a seat, someone would be with us shortly. I knew I’d have to deal with the bills another day but we were in the door.
A half hour later they moved us to a room. A doctor put my daughter on an IV to hydrate her. I explained the Factor 5 Leiden situation. He said they were ordering a CAT scan but it might be awhile. Saturday nights are very busy in the ER. She fell asleep and I sat in a hard plastic chair straining my neck to watch the eleven o’clock news on the small TV hanging from the ceiling.
The doctor was certainly right about Saturday nights. At eleven o’clock all hell broke loose. I heard a commotion out in the hall so I stood in the doorway and watched as a very loud, angry black woman wearing a fur coat and a Russian cossack style fur hat was escorted to a room. She was swearing and screaming, “Don’t you touch me there.” Two male nurses joined the fray and they finally got her settled in a room down the hall. My daughter moaned and I rushed back to her side. She was thirsty so I filled a cup with water from a pitcher. She took a sip then fell back to sleep. I stroked her hair for awhile.
Another commotion arose in the hall. This time two EMT’s and two nurses were rolling a young white man on a stretcher into the room across from me. The four of them got ready to lift the man from the stretcher to the hospital bed. One of the EMT’s shouted, “On the count of three. Gunshot wound is on the left. Ok, one, two, three…lift.” The wounded man moaned. I overheard someone in the hallway say, “Drug deal gone bad.” I stepped out to go to the ladies’ room, passing the room where the woman who arrived earlier was sitting on an examining table, still wearing her hat and fur coat. She was being questioned by two men, one a cop. Someone had taped paper signs to the door and the glass walls. “Keep out. Contamination.”
I walked faster, past a father with his young son whose face was bright red. “He pitched a fever about an hour ago.” The dad spoke with an Hispanic accent. “Last I checked it was 105.” We were all here tonight in the Albany ER. Black, white, Hispanic. Poor, struggling middle class, law-abiding, and law-breaking Americans. I picked up the pace. The last thing I needed was to pitch a fever of my own.
An aide finally arrived to take my daughter down to the basement where they do the CAT scans. I got on the elevator with them and held her hand, waited outside while they did the procedure, and then we returned to the ER room. It was cold and the nurse brought two blankets, one for me, but it was hard to get comfortable in the plastic chair. An hour later, a doctor arrived and told me the CAT scan looked fine. I asked him if maybe I had overreacted. He said, “If it were my daughter, with the factor 5 situation? I would have done the same thing.”
We got back to the hotel room at three in the morning. There were two double beds in the room but I crawled into her bed, wrapped my arm around her waist and fell asleep.
I’ve experienced American healthcare in all its glory and infamy. I’ve had self-employed insurance and work insurance and for two months of my life no insurance. I’ve had high deductibles and in 1992 discovered my insurance didn’t cover pregnancy. When my second daughter was born two and a half years after her sister I was still paying the bills for my first delivery. We had better insurance by then so thankfully the second pregnancy was covered. My husband has a prescription for a blood thinner that without insurance and the help of a kind Walmart pharmacist would cost $650 a month.
My husband and I recently started watching Breaking Bad. I don’t know how we lived in America for so long without having seen the show. I’d heard so much about it but it was always described to me as a show about a chemistry teacher who starts making crystal meth. During the very first episode, I turned to my husband and said, “This show is about health insurance in America.”
I am not sure if the writers of Breaking Bad succeeded in eliciting empathy from the American public regarding the issue of health insurance, so I don’t know why I even try except for the fact I don’t know what else to do as we careen towards January 20th. What happened to me and my family in Albany can happen to almost anyone on any given day in America.
Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are itching to gut Medicare. During the campaign, Trump promised to overturn the Affordable Healthcare Act. If he succeeds, roughly 20 million people stand to lose their health insurance.
A month after that night in Albany, the $3700 bill for the four hours in the ER had arrived, and my health insurance finally kicked in. I already knew I hated the job in the cubicle but I ended up spending four years there sitting for healthcare. The start date for my insurance was December 25th and I put the individual cards in everyone’s stocking that Christmas.
H.L. Mencken may have been right when he wrote, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Unfortunately even those of us who didn’t want this will have to share in the misery of breaking bad.
***Please share your American healthcare stories in the comments below and let your representatives know if you have concerns about repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act. I am only one small voice but together we are stronger and louder.***
#bebrave #speakup #stayinformed