01/31/2008 06:15 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Emergency Room

On Saturday, I had a monster migraine headache. I tried every remedy ever invented, but still ended up weeping for mercy on the bathroom floor, pinned there for six hours by violent bouts of pain-induced vomiting, telling my husband that I wanted to die. My husband reacted the way most sentient human beings in his situation would react: he told me to bet up and get dressed because we were going to the emergency room.

The emergency room has been my salvation many times in the past for migraine-induced insanity. The good doctors there make sure that you're not, in fact, having a brain hemorrhage. They give you Demerol so that it no longer feels as if someone is stabbing you with an ice pick; they give you intravenous anti-nausea medicine so that you can stop retching long enough to breathe; they give you beloved relief. But on Saturday, when my husband said we were going, I said no -- and not because I didn't need what the emergency room could offer, but because I believed the pain of the emergency room would be worse than the pain of the migraine.

Here's the way my thinking went: it was late on Saturday night in Los Angeles. It was raining for the third day in a row. The emergency room would be a three-ring circus. There would be people there with phantom diseases hauled out tonight because they didn't have any other way to get out of the rain. There would be people there with raging sore throats and ear aches and belly aches because they didn't have access to doctors during regular hours who might help them before their sicknesses got out of control. There would be people there with alcohol poisoning, knife wounds, gunshot wounds. I've been to the emergency room on nights like this. You wait four, five, six hours for your turn. You huddle in the hallway, throwing up in a bucket, your head covered with a blanket because you're unable to tolerate the bright lights and the blaring sound of late-night TV.

I decided I'd rather suffer the pain of the headache than the pain of the emergency room. And it occurred to me that this is what it looks like when our health care system has broken down. People in pain choese to suffer. People in danger stay home. I was lucky because a migraine, though brutal in its fury, can't kill you. But what happens when it's an unrelenting fever, shortness of breath, deep chest pain, and the pain seems easier to bear than the pain of the emergency room? What happens then?