The tumultuous arrival of Obamacare here in Hawaii has me thinking about the birth of my first son.
It was a difficult birth.
I was living in Paris with Chrystèle, the French woman who later agreed to marry me. She was more than nine months pregnant and suffering the sort of intense aches that most women do. When the pain became frequent enough, we headed to the hospital.
We benefited from universal French medical coverage -- widely ranked among the best on earth. We supplemented it with additional coverage for fairly small additional costs, thanks to Chrystèle's employer.
We had met the team at the public hospital and toured it weeks earlier, so we knew where to go and, hopefully, what to expect. That said, I don't know whether anyone is ever really prepared for something as transformational as a first birth.
It turned out that we weren't.
There is no getting around the fact that the first time a couple has a child, there is a lot of uncertainty. When doctors tell you something, you usually don't know whether it is normal or abnormal. Few people in that situation have similar experiences to compare it to. (In some ways, the same could be said about America and the transition toward Obamacare.)
And, of course, almost no mother describes her first birth as "easy" -- at least not until she has a more difficult one to contrast it with.
In our case, the baby wouldn't get into the right position. And he was big -- and in no rush. Hours passed and Chrystèle suffered intensely. Medical staff finally gave her a much-awaited epidural that brought her relief.
We finally moved to the delivery room and the medical team began to go about its work. While they were quietly confident and notably competent, the atmosphere eventually -- and very suddenly -- changed amid an assortment of stressful beeps and rushed medical talk.
The baby was under intense stress. His heart rate was slowing sharply, and Chrystèle's blood pressure dropped along with it. Before I could digest what was happening, I was gently but firmly told to leave the room.
It is one thing to watch passively while the woman you love suffers in labor because you are there for her, to hold a hand or look in the eyes. You can hope to give her comfort through your presence. But what happens to her -- and the baby that is waiting to be born -- when you have to leave the room?
That's the sort of thing that I was wondering as I stood in the hallway outside, staring at a door, wondering what was happening inside. It finally sank in that the wall between me and them meant that something might really be wrong. But I realized that there was nothing I could do to help. Members of the medical team passed by me with enough urgency that I didn't interrupt them.
It crossed my mind that we could lose the baby, or I could lose Chrystèle. Everything, it was clear, was out of my hands.
I tried to focus on something, anything, to get time to pass more quickly. I could hear nothing from inside the room, but there were sounds around me. It was the gray noise of other births, beginnings and endings.
There was the rolling of medical trolleys and the sweet or pained wails of newborns.
Hospital staff conversed as they headed outside to smoke cigarettes.
When the door would open to our room, I picked up fragments of the doctor's medical commands, but trying to decipher them was futile.
Eventually, I saw a man near me who seemed to be in a similar situation. He, too, hoped to become a father that night, and the birth was also proving complicated. His wife was just seven months pregnant, he told me, and the fetus weighed just a little over two pounds. He was trying to sound confident that they wouldn't lose their girl before she was born.
Amid the real-world concerns, we didn't have to contemplate things that might weigh on us later. We didn't need to think about accruing increasing debts as each set of equipment was rolled into one or the other of our delivery rooms, as we might have in the United States.
We didn't have to look forward to copays and deductibles that might reach into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars, like those paid by many of my friends in California, Washington and New York. Friends in San Francisco spent more than two years paying off the birth of their little girl.
There was no risk of having our insurance premiums increased just because we tapped into our coverage.
We could just focus on the most important part of it all -- the health of mother and child.
There was plenty to worry about on that front. When I was finally invited back into the delivery room, I took Chrystèle's hand. And, as time sped up, the midwife turned and twisted the baby out of her amid much pushing.
Finally, I saw the top of the head of my first-born son.
And then I saw a brief glimpse of his face. He was blue, and unconscious -- and within seconds a nurse spirited his limp little body out of the room. As she did, she was massaging his heart. The rest of the medical team quickly followed.
It was surreal because Chrystèle and I found ourselves alone in the room. A strange and particularly troubling feeling of anti-climax washed over us.
Doctors had warned us that they would take the baby out of the room, for resuscitation, but that didn't make living through it any easier. As I wrote in an article for Newsweek in 2009 soon after the birth, it felt like our baby had arrived in body, but not yet in soul.
Our concern was growing.
French medical care isn't perfect. Perfection doesn't exist when it comes to caring for our bodies in the most difficult moments. And it all comes at a cost, although countries with universal coverage invariably have far lower medical costs because they have much greater bargaining power than you or I do. (The United States pays about twice as much for medical care per citizen as France does.)
But in the seemingly endless 45 seconds in which Chrystèle and I waited to learn the fate of our baby, such matters were far from our minds. We were discussing what had just happened to better understand it, and we were listening and looking for an answer to the question that suddenly consumed us.
When we heard a baby let out a cry, we didn't know whether it was ours or not.
But when a nurse brought Luka through the door, his complexion was a vibrant red, and he was wailing -- and, after a difficult birth, we had a son.
In some ways, it feels like nearly universal health care in the United States is going through its own difficult birth. The debate over it has reached its nadir with a government work stoppage affecting hundreds of thousands of federal workers, not to mention the people they serve. America is a little like I was out in the hallway, or like Chrystèle and I were when our baby was taken out of the room.
We are collectively in the moments of greatest uncertainty, the moment when the Obama administration has given birth to something huge that can change many lives, but no one is certain about how it will turn out.
Strained metaphors aside, Americans will soon finally discover what they are getting. The current uncertainty will evolve into something real, whether good or bad, that can counter anti-Affordable Care Act fear-mongering that has little to do with reality.
I know from personal experience that health care for the masses can be good. "Obamacare" needs to prove that it can be good in the United States.