***This is an essay I submitted to Salon.*** Probably too late and too long, but I wanted to share with my readers.***
I’ve got that tingly feeling. Not the way you feel when you’re about to speak in front of an audience, not the way you feel when the house lights go down, or just before that first kiss, this tingly feeling is limited to my left arm. It’s tingling all the way from my elbow down to my pinky finger, where it stops, because there is no sensation there, at all. It is basically numb at this point.
No, I’m not having a heart attack. This is sadly, an occupational hazard of being a writer, I suppose. It’s the product of spending too many hours looking down at a laptop. Oh how I wish that I’d figured out a way to elevate my keyboard! Because now I have a “narrowing” at C7 and C8 in my neck, which is basically pinching the hell out of a nerve.
The very nerve! Doesn’t my spine know I don’t have any health care coverage? This, my friends, is also an occupational hazard of being a writer, a musician, a painter, a sculptor, a dancer, an actor, most all of your garden variety creative pursuits, and oh yeah, anybody who is a freelance anything; or a part-time employee, or self-employed or unemployed. Pile on the millions of young adults who have aged out of their parents’ coverage and haven’t found a job yet with “benefits,” (thank you Affordable Care Act for helping us to keep them covered for at least a couple more years) then add the millions of people who work full-time jobs but can’t afford even their group insurance and you’ve got about 48 million Americans with no health care coverage, according to the August 2012 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. It’s roughly 18% percent of the American population under the age of sixty-four. That’s almost one in five, for those of us who need a quasi-visual. One in five. So if five people are walking down a sidewalk, and all five of them got food poisoning, four out of five could simply call their doctor, the fifth guy will be treated like smelly fish that probably made him sick. He’s the odd man out.
Except in my case, I’m the odd woman out. Considered odd, or certifiably nuts by some, because I walked away from a job which came with health care coverage. I walked away from my job because it was literally making me sick. To be clear, there was absolutely nothing wrong with my job per se, it was a great job, for many people besides me. There are a lot of folks who’d give their eye teeth for a job like the one I had, but when you’re holding on to a dream of doing something else, ( in my case devoting all my time and energy to being a writer who eventually develops pinched nerves and hopefully not from her readers) even while the institutional green, plastic clock on your cubicle wall is counting off the ever diminishing minutes of your life, as you’re trying to tell yourself you’ll get around to your life’s work, after work and on weekends, but the older you get the more you realize you’re being delusional, well, I admitted that I’m odd, but I’m not fucking crazy. I knew that time would never come. So I quit.
I took off, literally and figuratively. I took off, just me and my dog, on an eight-week, road trip across America to revive my life. I needed a defibrillator as big as a country. I went to reconnect with every person I’d ever known. I had an urgent need to rekindle abandoned friendships, reunite with long lost family, indeed even find some kin I’d never known. We don’t generally regard death as a wake-up call, but I had lost two brothers already, I had to go and find a brother I’d never known. I walked away from my job, loaded up the dog, and took off, my route not fully planned, my expenses not fully funded, I simply split, on an 8,600 mile journey that ultimately lived up to the true definition of odyssey.
You never know what the open road will open up. The miles rushing under my wheels became a truth serum for long overdue introspection, unattended grief and unexpected and overdue joy. The sheer physical beauty of our country, coupled with the abundant benevolence of strangers who appeared like characters from central casting at the precise moment when they were destined to appear, strangers who embraced me like a long-lost sister and yes, even the found brother, who really embraced me like a long-lost sister, all of these experiences gave me enough euphoria to last a lifetime and material o’plenty for a book.
I scurried home to St. Louis all the way from Northern California, racing to beat the clock to write my tome before I ran out of time. Oh, and money. Finances are not my strong suit, nor time management, but I did manage to squeak by on a few freelance gigs and a couple of loans from friends, to finish the rough draft by Memorial Day and the final, final, final manuscript by Labor Day. I had climbed the proverbial mountain, I had reached my goal, I had accomplished my most coveted dream, and, I even got a publisher. My book, Off the Leash -How my dog inspired me to quit my job, pack my car and take a road trip across America to reclaim my life, came out in early October.
Everything would be great if my damn arm didn’t hurt so bad. All of the deadline driven hours have apparently taken their toll. As I move into the unchartered water of Marketing 24/7, which is the afterbirth of publication, I need my typing skills more now than ever. But my left hand is weak and wobbly. My left pinky finger is numb. The radiating pain that goes from my in-between my shoulder blades to my fingertips hurts like hell.
I was sitting across the table from a good friend of mine two days ago, the morning the first symptoms appeared, with my arm draped over my head. This is not a typical posture in a coffee shop booth.
“You know, you always hear the statistics about people who don’t have health insurance, how they can’t go to the doctor when they need to,” Gerry said. “But now I’m sitting across the table from one.”
Yep, ain’t it great? I had health insurance once upon a time, paid group premiums and as a sole proprietor of a small business, I bought health care coverage for myself and my children for years. The deductibles were ridiculously high and the premiums exorbitant, but I paid them just to have some kind of minimal safety net between us and disaster. No such luck now. When you have to choose between utilities and health insurance, guess which one goes lacking?
Through a great friend who put me in touch with a great chiropractor/acupuncturist who is masquerading as an angel of mercy, I did get treated that same day, for free. This wonderful doctor came in on his day off and did everything he could to help alleviate the pain. But even he admitted, a cortisone injection might be indicated. He doesn’t do those. But there wasn’t a doctor on the planet, or so I thought, who would let me come into a private practice with a down payment, asking for a coupon book.
So, I dragged my rigid tense body down to the nearby emergency room, when, after two days I just couldn’t take it any longer. I should have known it was a bad sign when the emergency department parking garage sign said “full.” That’s the EMERGENCY ROOM parking deck, not just a lot mind you, but a DECK.
I almost turned around once the security guards patted me down and I passed through the metal detector and was confronted with The Teeming Mass of Hurtin’ People. Man, it was a sight! But, being the “hell or high water” kind of person I am, I dutifully stood in line to get my name on the roster. It would be only a quick fifteen minutes until they called my name over a public address system. Even though the nurses clearly had been informed to use the person’s first initial only and last name, apparently this nurse in particular had not completed that training module.
“Jean Whatley. Jean Whatley, “ he bellowed into the microphone. “Jean Whatley to the triage desk.”
So much for HIPPA. Eleven and a half hours later, I swear to God, eleven and a half-hours, an EKG, blood test, urinalysis, series of X-rays, a 50-question, “let’s play doctor” inquiry by a well-intentioned Doogie Howser look alike, who wanted to know if I’d ever sought psychiatric treatment, to which I wanted to reply, “for what, being crazy enough to come here for help?”, plus a Percocet and a Valium later, the attending ER doctor came in and announced, “you have a narrowing of the space in between your vertebrae at C7 and C8.” Well, lil’ miss sister doc, me and WebMD could have told you that eleven-and-a-half hours ago!
“I just want the needle” I told her, suggesting a cortisone injection smack dab in the hot spot.
“We don’t do those here,” Dr. Nancy Drew responded. It was the first time I’d seen her face, really, since the minute she came into the room to follow up on Doogie’s investigation. She’d turned her back to me in favor of the computer. I understand EMR – electronic medical records, it’s important, it’s efficient, the doctor can ask questions and type in the answers and it’s a good thing to have. What I don’t understand is how or why she never looked at my neck.
“Here’s something for pain,” she said as she ripped the top page out of her prescription pad, “and here’s a muscle relaxer. You’ll need to see another doctor and some physical therapy would be a good idea.”
Eleven and a half hours of “that” for “this?” I want my money back. Oh but wait, I will want my money back every time I make a payment on the E-Z Pay-for-the-Rest-Of-Your-Life-Program” which I will
This is sheer lunacy. There is absolutely no reason, save for the profit margins of the insurance industry, that every person in this country should not have access to health care. It flies in the face of what our country stands for. It is immoral and it makes us all smaller and more sick. It makes us more sick because there are millions of people in America who resentfully remain in jobs they hate, simply because they need to keep their health insurance. I’ve heard countless stories of people who say they’d gladly take jobs that pay less, but would mean more to them, even people who would love to start their own businesses, if they could only figure out how to preserve their benefits. Benefits, really? How is this a benefit to our society? Isn’t disease or disability scary enough without having the additional, mind-numbing fear over how to pay for our care in the event we’re stricken? It reminds me of that song by Warren Zevon, “Don’t Let Us Get Sick.” God rest his soul, some of the proceeds from his son’s album “Enjoy Every Sandwich” went to organizations which help musicians with medical bills.
People without access to health care live sicker and die younger. We know this. Are people without insurance more expendable? Are their lives worth less than the lives of people who can afford to pay the premiums? We simply must figure out a way to provide universal coverage. We simply must. To me, there is no greater moral imperative for our country and it’s not just because my arm hurts. It’s because it is the right thing to do.
I’m down to my last $100 until my next freelance check comes in the mail, but I just sent $20 to re-elect President Obama. He simply must win. Millions of Americans just like me are counting on him. President Obama is the best friend I’ve got when it comes to healthcare, next to the compassionate chiropractor who will continue to treat me for free and my tall, handsome gentlemen friend, who came and sat with me in the ER until they finally freed me from those tacky, heart monitor Post-It notes stuck to my chest. Meantime, handsome gentleman friend called a Democratic doctor buddy of his. The Dem Doc is going to hook me up with a doctor who will do an MRI at cost. Then, Dem Doc also got me an appointment to see another Dem Doc who will give me a cortisone injection, if warranted, for $100 plus $25 payments each month. I can handle this. Just when I thought my ship had come in full of Dem Docs, my little brother, out of some mysterious cosmic volition, just put some money in my bank account, because he “felt like it.” This will cover the cost of the MRI.
In the still numb afterglow of the ER nightmare, I do count my blessings. I understand not everybody is as fortunate to have such a devoted circle; lover, brother, Dems.
Good to have, but we shouldn’t have to play this card.
I am voting and praying for our President to be reelected. I am praying for every other American who lives in fear of simply getting sick.
Jean Ellen Whatley is the author of, Off the Leash – How my dog inspired me to quit my job, pack my car and take a road trip across America to reclaim my life. Published by Blank Slate Press. Whatley lives in St. Louis.