My Unexpected Experience with the Health Care System

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January 31, 2010 by D Stack

I’ve had one or two minor health scares in my life as has my wife. But over the past several days I was able to experience that parental nightmare of not knowing what was wrong with their child and terrified it was something serious.

My seven-year old woke up Tuesday night screaming that she couldn’t see. My wife has had a history of migraines so we suspected our eldest might be experiencing one too. We calmed her down, gave her some Motrin and the next morning she was fine. Wednesday night she snuck out of bed to watch the State of the Union with me (she’s becoming an elementary school political wonk. I’m quite proud. She asked me what was up with the people who didn’t clap when other people were.) But later that night the screaming came back. Worse this time as nothing would calm her down. She refused to open her eyes, screaming that it hurt too much.

We’d already scheduled a pediatrician appointment after the first wakeup. Since it was for Thursday afternoon anyways we decided to keep her home from school and keep it. By the time of the appointment she was getting worse. She was absolutely refusing to open her eyes for any reason. We began having all sorts of nightmares – the types of things that I imagine parents always worry about – tumors, meningitis, etc. The pediatrician couldn’t get her to open her eyes and suggested we go to the Emergency Room. At the ER at MetroWest Medical Center she still wouldn’t open up. The doctor who saw us was able to learn more – for example that it was only one eye that hurt, the right eye, though trying to open the left eye hurt the right one. And it wasn’t even a matter of light sensitivity – she suffered intense pain even when trying to open her eyes in the dark. The doctor indicated he wasn’t an ophthalmologist so even if he were to force the eye open he couldn’t guarantee an accurate diagnosis. He consulted with an ophthalmologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston who indicated that there was no danger in waiting for an ophthalmologist on Friday (Motrin kept her pain under control unless she tried to open her eyes, though she was quite terrified). He suggested we schedule an appointment at Tufts Floating Hospital for Children and see a pediatric ophthalmologist there the next day.

That’s what we wound up doing. I’d never known there was such a thing as a pediatric ophthalmologist. However I was incredibly impressed by the people who helped us, from the office staff to the resident who primarily interacted with our daughter to the senior doctor. The resident did a marvelous job keeping our daughter (and her parents) at ease and was able to get her to open her eyes despite the pain. She was also able to give our daughter some drops to numb the pain, earning her big bonus points. As it turned out our daughter had a corneal abrasion – essentially a scratch through several layers of her eye to the point where it reached many nerves. It heals on its own but it can be incredibly painful. To aid in the healing they gave her some drops and ointment with a return visit for the next day to make sure she was healing well. By the time of that appointment she was nearly 100% better.

Up until the point we had a diagnosis my wife and I were terrified. And I must admit my awe at the parents of children with conditions that do not go away this easily – parents of children with all the diseases we were horrified of. I don’t know how they get through every day and every surgery.

Though the condition would have gone away even if it was never diagnosed, I don’t regret for a second going through the whole process. If it went away we’d be wondering if it was the first sign of some other medical problem.

Now my blog is primarily political and there is a political aspect to this. My wife, daughter, and I were very fortunate. Fortunate that I have an awesome health insurance program through my employer. Fortunate that as an engineer I’m salaried, able to leave early for doctor appointments or able to take a personal day easily. And fortunate that my wife as a teacher has numerous sick and personal days. Navigating the system we had the magic insurance card that always opened doors for us. Without it the ER would be under no obligation to admit us without upfront payment, as it was not an obviously life-threatening situation. And it was clear that payment was expected with the nice co-pay lady who visited us while we were there. At Tufts there was a brief bit of confusion as to whether we had a referral from our doctor – if we didn’t we would have had to sign an agreement that we’d be paying if insurance denied us.

Like I indicated our insurance opened many doors for us. Now one could make the argument that we of course deserved this insurance due to our value to our employers. But what did our daughter do to deserve it, aside from have the fortune to be born to us? Why does she deserve it over someone born to poor parents? Or even lazy, good-for-nothing parents who mooch off the system? I’ve heard the American medical system described as the finest in the world. Like I said, I was extremely pleased with the care we received. But another family in the same medical circumstance – or a worse one – could have been denied care based on their economic status. And even if they received the care, they would be responsible for medical bills in the thousands of dollars range.

The argument that health care is not a right seems odd to me. How is it as a society we can choose not to take care of our ill or suffering? We choose not to. As a nation we could afford to. We choose to pay taxes for the world’s most powerful military. And we choose to make health care a free-for-all. The argument is sometimes made “well isn’t a nice car or house a right as well?” But without a nice car or house you won’t die. One could make the argument that shelter is a right.  The arguments against health care as a right seem to be treating it as a luxury product, akin to a 50 inch plasma television. As a parent I can’t imagine we have a society that allows other parents to agonize over whether they can afford to take their children to the doctor.

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