10/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

UK versus US Systems -- How Universal Health Care Works in the UK

I was having dinner last night with an old friend who shared with me a story about her recent encounter with the Los Angeles County Hospital system. A friend of her's was hurt while riding a horse and had no insurance. The woman was forced to go to Los Angeles County Olive View Hospital in Sylmar - a place better known for the 1974 earthquake than its healthcare. My friend said that this is what universal healthcare would be like, long waits, delayed treatments and basic lack of compassion. As I have experienced both sides of that equation, I know first hand what its like to live with Universal Healthcare and with life is like without it.

I have had the good fortune to experience Universal healthcare in Great Britain when my boyfriend, David, was alive. There was no such thing as no coverage for pre-existing conditions, there were no horrible waits, and there was no impersonal service. David told me stories of care, nurturing, and lots of compassion. His doctor, Sandy, was based in Edinburgh at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. Sandy was always available for David - even when he lived in the States with me. Sandy would check in on David via letters and phone calls, just to make sure his patient was getting what he needed.

I know of few doctors that would do the same thing now, most of which you have to pay a large amount of first though. With our current system, doctors do not have the time to do necessary follow up with patients and just basically at the "care" in the healthcare system.

Not to deny what my friend was going through. The current Emergency Room system in the County of Los Angeles is lacking at best - public or private. We do not have enough Emergency Rooms open to meet the demand our population places on them. The need is so great, its almost as if you need to plan where you get in your next car accident. If your accident is too far from a hospital, you may not stand a chance. With the recent closure of King Drew Hospital, people have to drive several more miles for emergency treatment, and is also taxes the remaining emergency rooms to beyond capacity. As Henry Waxman states, "diversion kills you."

Another friend also had to go through the County system. He lacked health insurance and was in last stages of AIDS. The care he received, when he received it, was amazing and top notch. It's just that when you are that sick, you cannot handle it alone. You need an advocate and a system that is on your side, a system that treats you with basic human dignity. William, the friend I am talking about, died with little dignity left. Because of the current County system and its delays and long timeline between diagnosis and necessary treatments, he was forced to wear diapers for his final nine months. He refused to leave the house, except for medical treatments and appointments.

In spite of the morphine, vicodin, and diapers, William some how found the strength to make Thanksgiving dinner for his friends. He refused to let us help - he wanted this to be his gift to us. We all knew this was his farewell moment and we all showed up, showering him with flowers, the latest CDs (he was a Diana Ross freak), and cheesecake.

I would like to presume that William would have been treated differently and would have had a better chance to more time on the planet had we had a Universal healthcare plan in place already.

My last experience with the UK system was Christmas 1994. David and I had gone back to visit his family, for what we all knew was going to be his last Christmas with us. We flew back to Edinburgh, in spite of a variety of health issues David had going on at the time. Nothing was going to stop us from our goal. Thanks to laws that ban people with HIV from traveling into the US - making David illegal - his drugs and medical equipment were packed in my bags. We had separate tickets so it would take some efforts to figure out where they really belonged. I had spent so much time and energy packing for the two of us while David rested, finalizing last minute details before the holidays, and just tying up so many loose ends that I arrived in Scotland completely exhausted. David, however, arrived perky, in part to the Ritalin his doctor had given him as a last resort to combat the fatigue.

The next day we both visited Sandy, David's doctor. I went along on all doctors' visits now - I was the one who had the list of medications, kept the notes from the various other doctors, and knew what he had taken last. In spite of the fact that David was in good spirits, his blood work revealed something else. David had raging CMV - the virus that causes people with AIDS to go blind. He already had laser surgery to prevent his retinas from detaching performed twice. However, that did not work - on election day in 1994, David was on the operating table at City of Angels hospital getting his retina re-attached thanks to some new technique only recently developed. It caused his eyesight to go from nearsighted to farsighted, and he could no longer drive at night. I took on more and more caregiver duties, without hesitation.

One night in Edinburgh, David's pik line was blocked, a common occurrence. I had learned many various nursing duties rather quickly and knew that we needed heplock and it would be solved. However, we had none at his sister's home in Edinburgh. A quick call to the Royal Edinburgh Hospital and a bag was ready for me in minutes. I was driven up to the Hospital and walked right in to the nurses station of the HIV Ward and was greeted warmly, asked how my holidays were going and was handed a bag. They asked how David was doing and I told them his latest statistics. They wished me well and reminded me that they were there for me in case I needed more help. I left with a feeling that I rarely get here from our healthcare system. I left cared for and reassured that there was that light on during the storm. Someone was there to help me through this war, someone who had been there many times, and was willing to go through it again because someone needed it.

I don't get that feeling here - wait I should clarify - I rarely get that feeling here. I have to fight to find it and sometimes pay dearly for it. Sometimes even when I pay a good amount of money, I still don't get it. I think what our healthcare system does not take into account is basic human dignity. When you are dealing with a fatal or chronic condition, many times you are treated like a number or a dollar sign. We need to realize that people are what we are dealing with - not numbers, not statistics, not trophies for your wall.

We need to put the "care" back in healthcare - and we need to allow all Americans to have health insurance, regardless of their health status, and their economic means. We have to remember that we are all on this planet together, and helping others only helps ourselves. We need to give our fellow Americans dignity in their struggles as well as dignity in their daily lives.