“An educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern.”—Tony Benn, former member of British ParliamentBecause my intuitive child knows that I can't possibly have imagined a more harrowing way to ring in the New Year than to navigate our nation's healthcare system, she decided to up and get sick on me. She goes big when she does something, be it face-planting or back-talking, so she went all rag-dolly on me and developed a furnace-like fever complete with hallucinations of a Christmas tree on my head and apocalyptic frogs on her face. And wouldn't you know, the pediatrician's office was closed for the holiday.
Like any good parents, Sam and I left Ruby on New Year's Eve alone with the dog, a syringe loaded with 7 milliliters of Motrin and instructions to get some rest, just so we could go have our life back for a few hours. We drank champagne, groped each other at midnight and danced into the morning hours.
Just kidding. We stayed in, watching, ironically enough, Michael Moore's Sicko, and stayed up caring for our very ill child, doing our best to avoid a trip to the emergency room.
A good part of that night and the following day were spent waiting for various triage nurses to call us back “within 30 minutes.” I'm not even going to say how many times I had to call the hotline because each of those supposed 30 minutes was four minutes long. There are few tests of human resilience like repeatedly suffering the ubiquitous automated answering service: Press one for scheduling! Press two if you seriously expect to speak with a person! Press three if you'd like us to pretend we give a rat's ass! Press four if you just got disconnected!
We were never told—nor did we feel—that our daughter needed to go to the ER. She had a high temperature, sure, but we were managing it with the advice of a doctor friend until we eventually obtained communication, meager though it was, with a nurse in our network.
And so it went for four days until we delivered Ruby to the professionals first thing on Jan. 2. In the waiting room, we listened as the receptionists drew straws to determine which poor sucker would spend her day on phone duty, taking angry calls from stressed out, ignored parents just like us, who would then be transferred to the nurse's voicemail. The nurse responsible for returning all of these calls “within 30 minutes” was occupied with attending to our needs—not to mention the needs of the regularly scheduled patients—over the course of the next hour. Meanwhile, we waited in an exam room for our pediatrician, who might as well be called Dr. Godot.
These doctors, nurses and receptionists—though they undoubtedly have good intentions when it comes to performing their jobs—could hardly see straight through all the bureaucracy laid out before them.
Eventually another doc showed up and explained, with weakly disguised frustration, that due to a miscommunication in scheduling, she'd be the stand-in for our still-vacationing regular pediatrician. Dr. Understudy then proceeded to perform a quick and rough assessment of my daughter before promptly brushing us off as over-worried parents. We were told it was nothing more than a stubborn virus and offered a few disconcerting words about how Ruby's visions of amphibians could be due to developmental delays. Sam and I looked at each other, dumbfounded and more than a little bit offended, and then took our lethargic, delirious daughter home, only to repeat the routine the next day when Ruby's fever peaked at 105 degrees.
Again, I called and was transferred to voicemail.
Again, my call was not returned.
Two-thousand-and-eight was looking good so far.
To make a long story a little shorter, I'll skip the description of the hoops we had to leap through in order to get another Bring-her-in-immediately! directive, followed by a series of blood tests, a failed catheterization and last-minute chest x-rays that revealed—drum roll, please—a partially collapsed lung and a case of pneumonia. When Dr. Understudy came to tell us the final diagnosis, she almost skipped into the exam room with excitement. She was nearly as relieved as we were that there was a concrete explanation for Ruby's mysterious illness. But had it not been for an almost obnoxious assertiveness on our part as we micromanaged every step of the testing, it might have been several days and a trip to the emergency room before we'd known what the hell was going on with our kid.
Mine is such a minor example of the ubiquitous fuck-ups in our dysfunctional healthcare system. But that doesn't make it any less frustrating or any less wrong. And I'm lucky. Unlike 47 million less-fortunate Americans, I have health insurance. Which, quite honestly, is reassuring only when I'm not sick; the thought of becoming seriously ill is petrifying because it could spell ruination for my family.
And things aren't getting any better: Reuters reported last week that free drug samples—those that the pharmaceutical industry give to doctors in return for their prescribing loyalty—mostly go to the wealthy and insured, not to the poor and underserved, as the drug companies would like us to believe. A day after this story was published, The New York Times reported on a move by the Bush administration to restrict individual states' ability to expand Medicaid benefits to include more families that can't afford health insurance. A spokesperson for the president stated that “this policy demonstrates the president's compassion.” His concern is overwhelming.
Healthcare is a basic human right. We live in the wealthiest country in the world, and only the most privileged among us have access to doctors. Even then, insurance companies liberally and without consequence employ the rubber stamp that reads “DENIED.” We're complacent while our elected officials—including most of the presidential candidates—accept millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the ever-richer industry.
It would do us well to remember this as we select a replacement for the shell of a man still running the show. More of the same, we do not need. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.