A Votre Sante

On Saturday morning, I woke up feeling slightly amiss.

I was in LA, staying at my friend D's apartment, down south both to attend a conference and to do some visiting. When I dragged myself out of bed for the first time, I sensed a pang of what felt like indigestion, which I assumed was due to either the vegetable-heavy meals I'd eaten at the conference hotel the day before or to the perhaps-one-too-many Hendrick's gimlets I'd enjoyed in the evening. But after a while, after a few round-trips between bed and washroom, I began to despair that this was regular indigestion because it would not leave me be and was in fact beginning to pummel me with serious and bizarre pain.

And then things sort of went off a cliff: D knocked on the bathroom door, opened it to find me curled up fetally on the floor (cushioned, mercifully, by a bath mat), and, alarmed, asked what was going on. I could only answer I don't know and serious pain and auuuuuugggghhh. He helped me off the floor and back into bed as the lower-left side of my abdomen exploded into excruciating hurt, getting worse by the moment.

Do you want to go to the hospital? he asked, and I said, No, no, I'll be fine, imagining that in fact I would, that whatever this was would pass, that I would manage to make it downtown to the conference as originally planned. And then I became a groaning, writhing mess of hurt, and he said, That's it: I'm calling 911.

At this point, I couldn't speak clearly for the pain, but running through my head was this: no, not 911. That means an ambulance, which means a huge expense, which my insurance will only cover half of. No matter that there was no way D could, on his own, maneuver me into his car and to the closest hospital, let alone that I was likely to improve on my own. But even as I heard him telling the 911 dispatcher his address, all I could think was not Relief is coming but No, no--too expensive.

The EMTs came, strapped me to a gurney, sped us to the ER at Cedars-Sinai. In a haze, I signed what felt like an endless series of papers to get myself admitted, waited for the IV stuck into my left arm to deliver painkillers and anti-nausea drugs, had blood drawn, got rolled into a tube for a CT scan, and spent hours floating into and out of consciousness, all the while trying to beat back flittering bits of thought about how much all of this would cost me.

It was that fear--cost, cost, cost--that kept me from waking D up in the middle of the night on Saturday, hours after we'd come home from the hospital, and asking him to take me back because the pain had returned, that fear that kept me from taking myself to get help on Sunday night when, in my own bed in San Francisco, I was pulled from sleep at 2 a.m. by pain that would not let go. On Monday, I gave in and called my own doctor, hoping, as he examined me, that he wouldn't ask for another scan or any sort of expensive testing.

And that, of course, is insane. I wish my first thought in each of these cases had been Something serious is wrong, and I clearly need help, not If I try to make it through this on my own, I won't need to worry about an unpayable stack of medical bills. And I, it's important to note, actually have insurance.

The intricacies of the health care debate currently raging here baffle me, but this much I understand: there are entirely too many people in the U.S. who don't even have the (possibly) marginal medical insurance I have, and who really would be in serious danger of major financial catastrophe should they find themselves in need of an ambulance ride, a CT scan, a bed in an ER, a battery of lab work. Too many people who might actually forgo care they need, even in an emergency, because they simply can't afford it. Now more than ever, I'm stunned by how crazily wrong that is.

Despite my foray into medical drama, I consider myself lucky: lucky to have had D around to shepherd me through a process I don't think I would've made it through on my own on Saturday morning, and to stay with me all day in the ER; lucky to have friends here in SF who drove me to my doctor's office, brought me ginger ale and bland food, showered me with offers of help, anything, any hour, just call. I'm lucky to be young (-ish) and healthy, these kidney stones aside, lucky that I wasn't dealt a crappy hand in terms of major medical issues. And I'm damn lucky to have insurance that will at least offset part of the costs of what I've just gone through, however hideous those costs may be.

At the risk of stating the overly obvious, it's depressing and painful to contemplate how many millions of people right here within our borders are nowhere near that lucky.