I was in a bed in the basement of a local hospital after an operation, unable to move, when it dawned on me that I might be dying.
The problem had begun six months earlier with a botched open Nissen-Fundoplication surgery. Six weeks of pain and fever after that operation, I'd gone back to the surgeon, only to have him tell me, "Quit being a baby, Janus. You're fine."
Since then I've had two more surgeries to correct the problem he caused. I was supposed to be healing from the last one -- but I could barely reach the nurse call-button, let alone summon up the strength to push it.
I passed out. Sometime later, the nurse arrived. A Wound-Vac had been draining my blood all night -- the drainage bag was full of blood. I'd almost died.
I am thankful I made it out of the system alive.
I'm also thankful that my family's finances survived. Had I had to pay my bill in its entirety that year, I would have had bills in excess of one million dollars. My insurance is government run Military Health Care. I didn't pay a dime.
Others haven't been so lucky. I'm a nurse, and I've seen the worst the system has to offer.
I remember Jim. He had worked all his life in a factory in Zeeland, Michigan. The latest round of layoffs had left him without insurance or savings.
Jim had an infection throughout his body that was serious, but treatable. After a few days, the billing department made their way to his room to discuss options with him.
The hospital was by no means telling him he had to go. Several doctors spoke with him about the severity of his infection. But after seeing an estimate of his bill, Jim left.
One week later, he died of an infection that could have been treated.
With 47 million Americans lacking health insurance, the stories add up.
I have worked with physicians who tried to hide expensive diagnostic tests by using different diagnosis codes, only to be turned down by non-doctors. They had to explain to patients, parents, or loved ones that the test had been denied. Patients then take out their stress and pain on the doctor, who's trying to save their lives.
Why, in this country of overabundance, can we not supply basic health care? Why are we leaving our life and death decisions up to lawmakers and bean counters? Does the dollar really mean more to us than human life?
Perhaps corporate profit motive isn't compatible with good health care. Patients frequently have to conceal symptoms from their doctors because full disclosure of medical history could lead to their health issues being labeled "pre-existing conditions."
Earlier this year Dr. Margaret Flowers of the PNHP (Physicians for a National Health Plan) was arrested, along with seven other physicians, during a Senate Finance Committee "debate." What should have been a fair debate involving all parties that have a stake in health care turned into a closed meeting of insiders, including Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) whose campaign funding comes largely from outside the state of Montana (including insurance and drug companies.)
Dr. Flowers' arrest only increased her dedication to fighting for sanity in health care:
As we were being processed, the police officers told stories about family members who weren't able to get health care and how they weren't able to get the care they needed... There was a very large and red sign in the room that said if you have any medical problems you're entitled to get health care. There is a law that says people who are taken into custody by the police or are in jail cannot be denied health care, but we do not have the same law for the person who's not in jail, or for every family and child in this country?
What's the answer? I thought I would ask those, who, to me, seemed to be the true stakeholders in this great healthcare debate. I went to the physicians, nurses, hospital administrators and patients themselves, to listen to their take on the issue. Their answers do not hinge on pages of legalese with options and clauses that refer to employment status or income level. They want to take care of everyone, regardless of income. The medical professionals offer patients a glimmer of hope and light even in their darkest hours. They want to do their job-- saving lives.
Even if we're getting sick and tired of this issue, we must stick together, so the voice of the majority can be heard. They can only sedate us for so long before the stories add up to the need for humanity to prevail over profit.
Cicily Janus is a licensed nurse and the author of her new book, Sick and Tired: An Oral History of America's Health Care War.
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