On February 4, the Brooklyn Detention Complex (formerly the Brooklyn House of Detention) held an open house for 400 members of the local community. As visitors, we were instructed that cellphones, video cameras, and electronic devices were not permitted, and I complied. But here’s what I would’ve photographed had cameras been allowed:

 

Unclear about all of this?  Over at the Washington Post, Ezra Klein cuts through the static and offers up a comprehensive breakdown of this week’s Supreme Court review of the Affordable Care Act.

Health reform opponents contend that the decision not to do something — namely, not buy health insurance — is economic inactivity, rather than activity, and therefore not a behavior the federal government can regulate. Health reform supporters argue that the decision to not purchase health insurance has an economic effect. An individual without coverage, for example, may not have the money to pay for an emergency room visit, sticking hospitals or taxpayers with the bill.

 

Unless you live in a sound-proof cave protected by fire ants, you know that ten days ago, right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh went on a tirade and deemed Georgetown University Law School’s Sandra Fluke “a slut” for testifying before Congress that her school’s health insurance should cover birth control. And, of course, national outrage ensued. Due to a lightning-fast, coordinated online effort targeting Limbaugh’s sponsors and urging them to drop him, dozens of Limbaugh’s sponsors bailed or suspended their sponsorship, and their numbers grow ever higher. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly quickly proclaimed his unequivocal support of Limbaugh’s position.

That’s where I stepped in.

“I want to rule out cancer,” the hippie doctor with bad coffee breath tells me as I sit exposed on a cracked vinyl examining table in a run-down clinic downtown. My mind starts racing as my fingers probe the canyons in the vinyl, picking at the foam core.

Cancer. I’m so young.

“We’ll run some tests,” he quips as he scratches notes in my file, my life unworthy of neat penmanship. He snaps it shut, sets it down, far away from my eyes, as though my illness should be kept secret from me.

Feeling my neck with his fingers in little circular motions, he mumbles to himself, uh-huh-uh-huh-uh-huh, another secret he keeps from me.

“Is it bad?” I stammer, trying not to cry in front of this man who looks like he lives in his car, the byproduct of me not having insurance, which is also racing through my mind. Health is a privilege in this country. You have no right to it, no entitlement, and I have learned not to expect it.

But I never expected cancer.

I eat right, organic for the most part, and I exercise every day. I quit smoking cigarettes years ago, and though I occasionally enjoy a joint now and then, I seldom drink, though I’m told a glass of wine now and then is good for you. I control my sugar intake, watch the red meat, skip anything with hydrogenated anything in it or bleached four or high fructose corn syrup, which is now being relabeled as just corn syrup because consumers have caught of to the food conspiracy.

How did this happen to me?

“I’ll know more when I get the results,” he says already on his way out.

“Ok,” I barely utter as the door closes.

And then I am left alone. Alone under the stale fluorescent lights. Alone with the cracked vinyl and wooden tongue depressors and blood pressure machine.

I think about the first time I died, when my sister jumped on my head in Lisa Buell’s pool and knocked me out. Lisa’s dad had to give me mouth to mouth, and I remember the taste of cheap beer, probably Coors Light. Dying then had been peaceful, as I wasn’t conscious to struggle against the water that came crashing through my lungs. It was coming back to life that was violent, and I’ve often wondered if that was a mistake, if I wasn’t supposed to die there on the Spanish tile by the side of the pool.

I think about all the people I’ve wronged. Make a mental list of everyone who deserves an apology from me, including Debbie Gordon, the girl I beat up in eighth grade for spreading rumors about me. She might have deserved it, but violence never solves anything. I know this now. I’m sorry, Debbie.

I think of my Mom, of how her face will crack and spill onto the floor when I tell her I might have cancer. I watch her heart fall from her chest and crash onto the floor and shatter into a million jagged pieces.

I hear my sister cry in her bathroom, shut away from the ears of her six children, my beautiful nieces and nephews, who listen at the other side of the door unbeknown to her. I see their confused and conflicted faces as I wipe the tears away from my own eyes.

Then I see my brother cry, and that undoes me. The tears fall, and I don’t care if the homeless doctor sees them.

Forty five minutes and a box of Kleenex after I’ve been handed a bomb to hold, a nurse finally enters with a yellow tackle box of needles and vials. She rolls up my sleeves and taps at my veins. “Oh, you’ve got great veins,” she says, smiling. She’s too excited by them, and I wonder if she’s a junky. I try to examine her teeth, but she’s looking down, down at my blue veins that may or may not be pumping cancer through my body.

“That’s all there is to it,” she says, snapping off her latex gloves and tossing them into the trashcan. “We’ll call to schedule the biopsy. You’ll need to pay at the desk on the right on your way out.” Then she leaves without any fanfare, and I’m left wondering if this is how it all ends, in a dimestore clinic with buzzing overhead lights on a cracked vinyl examining table in the middle of winter.

Death be not proud.

And neither should the dying.

 

I don’t like being out of my comfort zone. Not only does it make me uncomfortable, it makes me regress.

Carrying out my life in a foreign language has made me revert to the awkward, shy teenager that I try so hard to forget I was. Being a thirtysomething who is not guaranteed to put together an entire sentence, let alone an entire thought, gramatically correctly has made me self-conscious all over again. I speak minimally, do not expand upon thoughts in a profound way, and am constantly worried about my accent and whether people can understand it. Even if people compliment me on my French or assure me that my accent is charming, it is exhausting at times to be constantly reminded how I am different. Of course being unique is great but not every time I open my mouth.

When I first moved to France, I did anything I could to avoid vocal interactions with other Frenchmen. Thankfully, buying a baguette is formulaic, e-mail and texts have replaced phone calls, and more and more things have become automated, like buying movie and metro tickets.

However, since doctors are not machines I knew that I would eventually need to carry on a medical conversation in French, something I was not dying to do. But after seven years of chronic knee pain it was time to see if the French could cure what the Americans could not.

I liked my new primary care physician, Dr. Martin, from the start. He set aside a few hours each day for unscheduled appointments which allowed me to avoid phoning a secretary to make one. I was surprised to see upon my arrival, however, that a secretary was nowhere to be found. The door opened onto a waiting room with 10 other patients already inside.

There was nobody there to explain which doctor out of the three in this particular office I was there to see or why. There was no patient information form to fill out nor was there was a sign-in sheet. I took a seat and waited my turn, hoping it would be obvious when that turn would come.

I’m often scared of conversations I’m not convinced I can have, and get tongue-tied when around people of authority. In this case, I was not only worried about spitting out the right words and articulating clearly, but was anxious that I wouldn’t understand what the doctor had to say back. Sometimes doctors have relevant things to say concerning our health and I didn’t want to miss anything important.

I had brought a book with me to help pass the time but I was too busy repeating medical vocabulary and formulating practice sentences in my head. MRI, physical therapist, cortisone, shot, pain, limp, anti-inflammatory…the translations for these words were all pirouetting through my head in a stressed-out frenzy.

When I finally made it into Dr. Martin’s office an hour later I did my best to explain that I had had pain in my right knee every day for at least seven years. An MRI (accompanied therewith) led an American doctor to determine that I had bursitis (in layman’s terms, an inflammation). Said doctor gave me a painful shot of cortisone and sent me to a physical therapist. The physical therapist showed me stretching exercises that should cure me and then sent me to a podiatrist because I walked funny and needed custom-made insoles for my shoes. [At 28, this walking funny business, and possible culprit, was news to me.]  Hundreds of dollars later, none of this worked.

Dr. Martin simply gave me the name of a specialist, wrote me a prescription for an anti-inflammatory, and sent me on my way. That wasn’t so hard. Then he asked me for the 22€ I owed him for the visit, which I would be reimbursed for later. Through my domestic partnership with Luc, I’m in the French health care system. Even if I wasn’t, I could afford a doctor’s appointment.

The bad news was that I now needed to go to the pharmacy. I don’t like pharmacies here because there’s no Advil, Tylenol or NyQuil — no recognizable comfort drugs that remind me of home. They also don’t sell chocolate candy, cigarettes, school supplies or lawn chairs.

Once there, I silently handed over the prescription for the anti-inflammatory, praying for a simple exchange. No such luck — the pharmacist asked for my government issued medical ID card. I obliged. Since I was new, I wasn’t yet entirely in the health system. Instead of not having to pay anything upfront, he explained that I would need to pay for the drugs myself and that I would get reimbursed later.

“Will that be possible for you?” he asked with sincere concern.

I quickly calculated how much money was left in my checking account and subtracted the amount I guessed the drugs would cost based on past experiences in the US.

“That should be ok. What will the medication cost…80, 100€?”

“14.”

My leg specialist, while very kind and American-friendly, did not do much to cure my bursitis which he decided was tendonitis (in layman’s terms, an inflammation). After more drugs, cortisone shots, and useless months of physical therapy he sent me to a surgeon. Although I was scheduled to see the surgeon at 11am, I didn’t enter his office until 2. Not only was he behind schedule, he made me wait while he ate lunch.

Within 5 minutes, the well-fed surgeon with spinach stuck in his teeth determined that an operation would be too risky and advised against it. When he told me the cost of my consult, I thought he had said 120€. I was not shocked because I figured surgeons earn more than primary care physicians so I handed over my cash. Later, at home, I looked at the bill and saw that my consult actually cost only 80€. Not only did the good doctor waste my time, he ripped me off.

Could I dare go back and question this man, a prominent surgeon? I had no paper trail to prove anything; it would be my accented-word against his.

I was reminded of the time when I chewed on glass in a restaurant while dining with friends visiting from home. No, the menu did not mention anything about glass so I was quite startled when I bit down onto that shard. The waiter was very apologetic but I was dismayed when the bill arrived with the cost of my meal on it. I was foolishly too shy and too concerned about being the “obnoxious American” to demand that my meal be free. It’s one of those things I often think about with regret.

So I knew that this time I had to go back, defend myself and get my money. I practiced the hypothetical conversation while limping back to the doctor’s office. I nervously explained to the medical secretary that I misheard quatre-vingts (80) for cent vingt (120) and that the doctor must not have paid attention to the amount I gave him. The secretary spoke with the doctor and after a moment of very awkward tension he conceded his error. I was proud of myself for not letting my timidness cost me nearly $60, the equivalent of 5 minutes with a cheap hustler [shameless plug alert — see Hey].

I don’t believe in hocus pocus, but when friends raved about a miraculous “magnetiseur” who cost only 25€, I was intrigued. Since such a person is not recognized by the government as a legitimate health care practitioner I would not to be reimbursed. But for 25€, I figured that I had nothing to lose at that point.

I’m still not sure what a magnetiseur is exactly, but Judith is some sort of healer who transfers her energy to her patients in order to cure whatever ailment they have. After listening to my medical history, which I had gotten quite good at recounting by then, she asked me to roll up my pants leg before she placed her hands strategically onto the inflamed portion of my knee. For her, the tendonitis v. bursitis debate was of little importance.

Judith seemed to be deep in concentration which I was quite uncomfortable with. I always feel the need to make small talk (even in French) with anyone providing me with a corporal service. I did not know if she could transfer energy and speak at the same time. I hesitantly asked her if I could talk; she replied “yes” while laughing [at me?].

“Did you study medicine to do this kind of work?”

She laughed, again. “No,” she replied with dignity. “It’s a gift.”

Whatever you want to call it, it worked. After 3 sessions, some weird plant extracts and shark cartilage imported from Luxembourg, Judith did what 5 doctors, 3 physical therapists and a whole lot of drugs and shots could not. Nowadays my tendonitis only flares up when it rains, like an arthritic 80 year old.

I’ve come to worry that Dr. Martin thinks I’m a hypochondriac. When I recently found out that there is lead in our tap water at home, I went straight to him insisting on blood tests. According to a very reliable source, the Internet, any amount of lead can be dangerous. When I explained why I was there, I could see his eyes rolling in his mind.

“Are you sick?” he asked me. “Any digestive or respiratory problems. Problems with your motor skills?”

“No. It’s not that I’m sick now, I just worry that lead will make me sick later.”

He took my blood pressure and checked my breathing. I must not have said what I thought I just said. He told me that I was fine.

My blood tests showed that I do indeed have lead in my blood, but not enough to warrant medical attention. I’m only halfway there; I always was an underachiever.

Then there was the time I found a lump. I was convinced I had cancer even if lumps don’t form where this one was. A few days later Dr. Martin took me down from the ledge of hysteria. I had a hernia, he explained — essentially, a whole in my stomach muscle’s lining which required surgery. Gulp.

My surgery was scheduled for a Monday morning, so I had to check-in to the hospital late Sunday afternoon. I’m not sure why. Once I was shown to my room, I had nothing but free time until my 5am wake-up call. Luc and I took a tour of the grounds since there is nothing more depressing than being a healthy patient in a hospital bed.

Although it felt like a prison, or boarding school, there was no kind of “lights out” policy in effect. I was warned that I may miss dinner if I returned to my room too late but I was willing to take that risk. In fact, Luc and I decided to have drinks and dinner in a small bistro nearby. Coincidentally, my surgeon [not the knee one] chose the same place. I was not sure if she recognized me from our one previous encounter but I wasn’t about to go over and say hello. But I did keep my nervous eye on the bottle of wine in front of her.

It’s not that I have a fear of hospitals, I just don’t care for them very much. In my experiences, nobody comes out of a hospital cured, they’re just temporarily fixed until a health issue becomes unmanageable again.

Sure, mine was a minor surgery, but surgery nonetheless which required general anesthesia. Not everyone wakes up from that. So, I’ll admit it — I was scared. Which was unfortunate for the unassuming woman tasked with wheeling me from my room to surgery. I was alone, in a foreign country, and about to go under…I needed reassurance.

“I’m scared.”

“I’m sure that everything will be fine.”

If the surgery didn’t kill me, the cliché would.

In the operating room I was greeted by the anesthesiologist. I’ve seen every medical show created for television since “Trapper John M.D.” so that gas mask was no surprise, the suffocating sensation was. No instructions were given, at least none that I understood. I was breathing, and then with the mask on, I was not. I panicked and gesticulated for them to remove it. They confirmed that I was meant to breathe normally, even with the mask on. They replaced the mask, I breathed in twice, and then woke up what felt like one second later in recovery. That was cool.

It’s worth mentioning that I had absolutely no out of pocket cost for this entire process which included a consult with the surgeon , two nights in the hospital, one surgery and two weeks of much needed pain killers.

*****

Then there was the time I went to the proctologist…

I click on random news items from my Comcast homepage regularly. It’s a bad habit and wastes a colossal amount of time, but I’m pretty much addicted to any link where someone “slams” someone else. Jen lashes out at Angelina! Rosie rips Oprah! Axl hammers Slash! Mayer porks Bieber! Boehner shanks Barney Frank! In almost every instance the actual confrontation turns out to be some mild disagreement or manufactured insult and it reassures me how enticing the prospect of public confrontation is, and how rarely it delivers. Monetary scandal, sexual transgression, and celebrity shit-talking are the three muses of modern entertainment, but even the actual goods like Bernie Madoff or Tiger quickly devolve into a wearisome parade of carefully-worded statements.

Which is why the commentary following each link is so fascinating. Unlike a boozy Federline massaged by his handlers after slagging someone outside the Viper Room, anonymous posters sink their claws into one another openly and viciously. There are few ramifications in airing these opinions and therefore zero self-censorship, which is not only liberating but possibly the single most honest reflection of what the internet purports to be. Until you’ve read about twenty posts. And then skimmed through twenty more. A vast majority tend to be both grammatically cubist and intellectually constipated, a fact which doesn’t seem to lessen their number or frequency. It baffles me that anyone has the endurance to continue shouting into a collective wind with so little prospect of being heard. Why, for instance, did Ponygirl54 feel the need to share her thoughts on the Kyoto Accords beneath yesterday’s review of The Blind Side? What inner turmoil drove Shahbagger9 to respond by calling the Octomom a douche? Even Budonkadonk66’s wife can’t possibly care about his musings on North Korean intransigence, can she?

I didn’t. Until a few weeks ago, when I was reading an article on the passage of health care (Fox gutshots Pelosi!) that included a transcript from one of Glenn Beck’s radio shows. Beck polished all his usual trinkets: Ronald Reagan (awesome), global warming (feh), socialism (deviltry), William Ayers (still whispering in a certain ear), ACORN (ha-ha, cornholes), and the evils of progressive thought (even more evil than suspected, run!) before sharing an uncanny knowledge of the Founding Fathers’ takes on a variety of contemporary issues. It turns out John Jay would not be feeling the stem cell research. Ben Franklin would almost certainly have eaten his wig (Whig?) over the usage of reconciliation. And Alexander Hamilton was practically born to open-carry a Tec-9 into the Weehawken Starbucks. Which makes nothing particularly clear, except that if the Founding Fathers’ original intent was to be regularly fellated by a gin-soaked Elmer Gantry who two centuries later would make a fortune grafting his wholly divergent thoughts onto their defenseless backs, it has certainly come to pass. At any rate, beneath this particular article was a truly endless scroll of posts, a group of responses so lengthy and virulent they glowed like a lump of iridium. I spent hours re-reading every last one. Opinions decamped along the entire political spectrum, from Incest Militia Right to Kennedy Martini Left, but each was crammed with its own particular brand of fury and invective. The voices were so unrelenting that after a while I began to suspect I’d stumbled upon something greater than its individual parts. Like the Virgin Mary’s face scorched into a tortilla, these posts may not have been just a random wishful representation. Maybe they were a message. To me. A perfectly chosen, mathematically precise cross-section of voices representing the utter and incurable dysfunction that is 2010 America.

Later that day I was jogging down by the waterfront, wondering what my discovery meant. Sure, advances in technology allow us to do things even Prince couldn’t have conceived of in 1999. Chat Roulette. Live-Cam Chubby Dorm. The ability to, without government interference or restriction, refer to one another as “dogz” on the Tool Academy website. But have these things, in the end, actually improved our ability to communicate? Further, was it possible for someone (me) to pull on a few yards of sackcloth (itchy) and write the rare lucid yet conciliatory post that didn’t scream, accuse, or alienate? That tried to incorporate the valid points of both Right, Left, and nougat-filled Middle? That could, like Martin Luther nailing 95 pixelated theses to a message board door, kick off a revolution of non-partisan thought?

Probably not. But I decided to try. So I sat down without reflection or guile, attempting to be as open and honest as I possibly could, a human Camp David. I avoided saying obvious things like “if you drive a Hummer in 2010, there’s a lonely nub where your penis should be.” I avoided mentioning the cash-besotted freedom-ride that is Sarah Palin in any way. I ignored the fact that the last time I attempted to join one of these conversations, the only direct response I got was “Yer a fag.” And although I responded by saying “Well, no, but it’s tempting to join, if only because of how apoplectic being gay makes those who decry government intrusion in their lives while trying to legislate my orgasm.” To which I got no response at all. Nevertheless, as I warmed up the keyboard, I felt weirdly confident and newly attuned to my fellow countrymen.

Here’s what I wrote back on the Beck stream:

 

We are all Americans, are we not? Why do we persist in acting like all liberals are evil and all conservatives stupid? There was a time in this country when most people recognized, despite their party’s current electoral success, that the duty of government was to find common ground upon which to pass legislation. Congressional leaders are now so locked into a continual cycle of re-election campaigns, media baiting, and ideological tactics that they are unable to take stands according to their conscience or constituents. Polemical commentary from both FOX and MSNBC hand-feeds the inertia. Far Right television propaganda is brilliant at manufacturing false divisions and corrosive to reasoned thought. The far Left propaganda arm is scandal obsessed and too whiny to be corrosive to anything. Both sides can flash all the pie charts they want, but no one truly knows if the health care bill will lower our deficit in the long term. In a decade we’ll look back on its passage as a decision of either brave genius or unbelievable folly. Meanwhile, entitlement Ponzi schemes continue to gobble both liberal and conservative dollars. George Bush failed to address them for eight years, mostly because he’d already spent his lunch money on Colin Powell’s WMD/Yellowcake tour. So if not this bill now, what and when? The only people who’ve won during Our Year of Procedural Ploys are the insurance companies. And the Chinese, who nurse our debt. Why can’t we pull together and stop using liberal and conservative as epithets and craft legislation that may not be perfect or ideologically pure, but at least represents movement? (yes, I realize it’s because lobbyists now pretty much write the bills themselves, but let’s stay on point.) Barack Obama won the presidency with a clear majority. Allow him to enact his agenda. In three years, if his decisions seem unwise, vote Romney. Or Non-Lesbian Cheney Daughter. It’s clear the congressional minority is willing to stall away all of our lives as a cynical campaign tactic. Why doesn’t this infuriate across party lines? The wearisome McConnell/Kyl/Boehner refrain that they are “not being heard” neglects the fact that their voices are justifiably marginalized because their side lost. Democrats loathed George Bush and frequently acted in their own self-interest during his administration, but they still managed to find compromises on many of the bills he proposed while hugging the pommel horse like Ving Rhames over the ones they couldn’t live with. That’s how politics works. Being in power sometimes means having the freedom to fail spectacularly. If John McCain (sadly broken by Karl Rove in South Carolina in 2000 and now without a single genuine conviction except remaining in office) had been elected president I’d be making the same argument: he won, let him do his thing, and in a couple of years we’ll check back and see, since no matter what demented legislation he proposed while trying to metabolize a Cialis bubble it couldn’t possibly be worse than our current gridlock. So the time has come to be honest about the sources of our anger. Disagreeing with the president, our president, is not the same as constantly questioning his legitimacy. Americans who claim to be patriotic but cavalierly wave placards of Obama with a Hitler mustache are exercising a speech which is not only not free, but void of both historical context and moral root. Americans who hold signs bearing conveniently truncated quotations about “the blood of tyrants” or “taking our country back” are really saying that our president should not be allowed to act on promises made during a winning campaign that sixty-five million people voted for. Which is, in effect, saying that they do not believe in representational Democracy. They do not believe in voting. Their patriotism is malleable and dependent upon being governed by someone who simply touts their narrow interests. Can it be true that every single thing Obama stands for is utterly wrong and false? It’s a seductive idea, because jettisoning nuance is an underrated pleasure. Particularly with language. Like when Tea Partiers say “Obama’s a socialist” what they really mean is “I have zero clue what socialist economics actually entails, but it makes it easier to hide the fact that I wish my head of state were more alabaster.” When they say “Obama’s a Muslim” what they really mean is “If I can attribute to him interest in a religion that’s safe to publicly ridicule, I can more easily call him things that should otherwise have me arrested for sedition.” When they say “Obama was not born in this country”, what they really mean is “Sure it’s a state, but Hawaii is on the very far left of most maps, and, frankly, that makes me uncomfortable.” The unpleasant truth is that Republicans and Democrats both have valid ideas. They’re also both represented by those who do nothing but parrot taking points and flash capped teeth. Scandal is not aberration, it’s inevitability. This very second John Ensign’s parents are writing a fatter check, Eric Massa is snorkeling his own private reef, and Larry Craig 2.0 is pulling The Wide Stance in some Capitol Hill bar stall. We are all weak, vain, duplicitous, and unable to consistently curb our uglier impulses. But we are not all running for public office. When our three major qualifications for election are raising money, going to a church where in the history of videotape the preacher has never said anything remotely controversial, and being the candidate who most effectively sublimates their personal brand of kink, we will continue to get exactly the representation we deserve. Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann are the same person: marionettes hired by network-owning billionaires whose political ranting is calculated not only to reinforce what we already believe, but to convince us to buy burgers, cars, and other burgers. We are constantly made to hate things that have no value while being blinded to the advantages enjoyed by the ruling class (by which I mean not Democrats or Republicans, but generational affluence). There were no Tea Partiers railing about a “redistribution of wealth” while George Bush’s deficit-financed tax cuts passed, mostly because more than fifty percent of the benefit went to the top five percent of the economy. Cash is its own lobby. And that money will trickle down eventually. Of course, when it does it’ll be in the form of frozen piss dumped by a commuter jet bound for Cleveland, but at least it’ll create thousands of new jobs in the umbrella industry. Fomenting anger over meaningless social issues is a diversionary tactic that goes all the way back to Millard Fillmore insisting Christmas be re-named Millardmas. Or at the very least Christmard. From flag burning (Iran Contra) to swift boating (Enron) to the notion that somewhere lurks a generic family by which to gauge what constitutes family values (Goldman Sachs), a succession of wealthy people have repeatedly and cynically increased that wealth by dangling the Carrot of Irrelevance high above all our heads.

It is time, friends, that we begin hating things that actually matter.

Together.

 

 

Of course, it should come as no surprise that my comments were absolutely pilloried. By the time I’d posted, the thread had gone cold. But once my words went up, the coals were stoked, and within hours a frenzy of responses stretched the server limit. I was called every possible name, from Marxist to Dickhead to Dave Matthews fan (ouch!), but the only one that really bothered me was unpatriotic, which I take to mean there are those who will always remain blind to the ridiculousness of their certainty, even while identifying the ridiculousness of mine. The bottom line is that I don’t need to be agreed with. But I do want to be listened to. At least long enough to argue that discourse is only a slightly dirty word.

 

 

 

I wrote this back in August, 2009. At the time, Palin was making her big splash about death panels, and the health care debate was lost in the fracas. By December, Palin and her death panels won the Lie of the Year Award from PolitiFact, but the damage had been done: the sound and fury was too loud, even though it signified nothing.

We remain mired in health care debate. Though the smoke from the death panels has cleared, new ridiculous problems have arisen to take its place. The seed of the piece remains as true as it did when I wrote it, though the death panels have fallen to the level of satire.

Plus, my father really wanted me to post this. I have to make Dad happy once in a while.


This health care debate–I admit I haven’t been following it all that closely. I suppose that my reasoning is somewhat lazy, as is my response to it, but not my feeling about health care. That isn’t lazy at all.

I haven’t been following because as soon as there’s the kind of vitriol and spew in the media that has been involved in this so-called “debate” the issues are lost to us. There are no more examples of what would help, how it might work, who it would effect; instead it becomes about who is the most inflammatory, who can come up with the most hysterical argument, and how we can continue to be mired in the crap unchanged and unchallenged to think in new ways.

But this is about me and my life, and I would like someone to recognize that.

For example, since we are self-employed around these parts, we also have to pick up the tab on our health insurance. Do you know what it costs? Close to 600 bones a month. Do you know what our co-pay is? Thirty bucks every time we set foot in an office, no matter if it’s to take a temperature or get a splinter out. And forget our deductible: we actually had to make the choice between 2,500 dollars per year or 10,000. I think we could call this level of insurance “catastrophic.”

What about eye care? Non-existent. For us, that means that every year, though our 5-year-old son needs glasses for something considered “medical,” his glasses are not covered by our insurance. Do you know how many glasses a kid goes through? Hundreds of dollars a year spent on specs. And my husband and I who merely have age-deficient eyeballs cough up hundreds of dollars to keep the words from blurring on the page and the traffic signs in focus.

Dental: Non-existent. This despite all the studies that have shown that good dental care is one sure-fire way to keep health costs down because of all the attendant ailments that accompany crappy teeth and gums. But that aside, let’s just talk about dollars: two hundred+ bucks apiece to get our teeth cleaned and tuned up every six months. Why do we go that often? So we can avoid the much more painful thousands of dollars that result from crummy gummies. I had to pay close to two thousand dollars a few years ago for a root canal and all its attendant horrors; I would like to avoid that again if possible, so I go to the dentist.

Of course, we have other mouth woes that we both keep ignoring; my husband’s teeth have become so crunched together they’re wearing down and I’ve been missing a tooth in back since my twenties. As a result, my teeth are wearing unevenly and flopping over. But maybe we would have those things fixed if we weren’t hemorrhaging so much money down the other medical rat holes.

Back problems? Forget it; out of pocket. I have chiro coverage, but never once has my chiropractor been paid through my insurance plan because he’s not a member of their tribe or something. Mental health issues? Better to be healthy but crazy, I suppose.

And we’ve got good health. What happens if one of us gets really sick? God help us. Individual health plans are notoriously skint on their lifetime limit–we’ve got two million bucks of coverage and then–buh-bye. Talk about a “death panel.”  Seriously, what happens if they have to fix a liver or kidney, or my heart? Do we run up to the two million and then the insurance adjuster says, “I’m sorry–we were just about to plug in that heart of yours but you’ve reached your limit.”

We’re the lucky ones. Whether by fiat or hard work we’ve been fortunate to have enough money to buy our own health insurance. Many don’t. Many of our friends, who are completely and solidly middle class, cannot afford to spend the extra money each month on their own medical insurance.

The result? Treatment for the most severe form of cervical cancer in a free clinic in Los Angeles. Pre-diabetic health monitoring that is so spotty as to be pointless. Out of pocket expenses of many-multiple thousands for a CPAP machine to keep our friend breathing through the night. Amount paid for emergency oral surgery: ten thousand dollars in cash. Two hip replacements for our friend, a young woman in her twenties, which she couldn’t pay for, and then had to claim bankruptcy. Type 1 diabetes with no insurance–a horror my step-sister has navigated partly by ducking back into school to get insured again. Otherwise, her now “pre-existing condition” rules her out of almost all other plans. What happens when she graduates?

These are ailments affecting people in their twenties through their forties. This is not a discussion about how to care for the elderly. This is about people in the prime of their life who would, with proper preventive health care and better access to good medical teams, live a long time. These same people may have their lives dramatically shortened because they cannot afford insurance.

So these discussions are an obfuscation which offend me personally. I take umbrage with these cavalierly hurled arguments because they are playing with the lives of people I love, active members of American society, taxpayers and voters, who may die prematurely because the health care system won’t care for them.

And what about my Dad?* Where is he in the discussion? The death panels apparently have him and his Stage 4 cancer singled out, but I don’t think he feels tremendously threatened by these medical bureaucrats waving their mighty pens of death over his head.

In fact, he’s relieved that his whole medical team understands in black and white terms that he does not want his life prolonged unnecessarily. That he has the choice to say no to being hooked up to machines and medical devices which may hand him a few more days or weeks, but in a manner which would hardly be called “vital.” That he may choose between that and living out his days comfortably, without strident measures, without hysteria or intubation, without medicine that is as potentially toxic as it is prolonging.

Is that last inkling of life so truly desirable, if sculpted by equipment, money, interventions, and resources that give no comfort or solace? Is the mere fact of living enough, no matter what the condition of the life? Is it life for life’s sake, or life for living?

If you ask me, and nobody did, I think this “health debate” is about a country’s unwillingness to step up to care for its citizens in a responsible way. I think it is about companies and industries so mired in bureaucracies of their own making that they cannot envision another way. I think it is about people’s lives being less important than the evolution of the pay-to-play system, and nickel-and-diming by the insurance industry. I think it is about trying to unravel the Gordian knot woven during the horrid evolution of the PPO, where codes of symptoms and ailments became more important than a holistic view of any given patient.**

We are the ones who pay the price of their inflexibility with diseases and easily treated injuries winding up in the least efficient places on earth: the Emergency Room. Or unable to save money for our retirement because we’re too busy spending it on glasses and CPAP machines, claiming bankruptcy for medically imperative operations, and insurance that is so expensive we have little left at the end of the month. So this disingenuous legerdemain being perpetrated to take the issues out of the hands of patients makes me pretty damned angry.

You can call it a death panel if you want, but I’ll take it for what it is: life and living under our own terms.

*Painting by my father Charles Moone, called “Self Portrait,” painted in 1972. His headstone reads: “Where Will You Spend Eternity?”

**Sometimes there are even articles to back up my opinions! A nice article called the “Five Myths About Health Care Around the World” from the Washington Post, which I found on Metafilter after I wrote this. Call it synchronicity.




The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

From "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop


So, I had this toothache. It was in a tooth that I knew had a cavity. I knew there was a cavity because the last time I went to a dentist, which was about eight years ago, I had noticed a dark spot on my lower right molar. I noticed it because I am the type of person who compulsively looks in mirrors and inspects everything. Everything. I opened my mouth wide to check out the fillings in the back teeth, and I noticed a spot on one tooth, and I mentioned it to the dentist and he goes, “What, this?”* And at the time, it wasn’t even enough of a spot to call it a cavity, so he just said be sure you brush good, and it’ll be fine, and he suggested that perhaps I should tone down the self-inspections.

Which would’ve been fine, right? Except that this was my last dental checkup before going off to college, and though I’m ashamed to admit it, there were many nights when I drunkenly went to bed without brushing, and many mornings when I stumbled out of bed just barely in time to make it to class, and several other times when I mostly just failed to care because I was 18 or 19 and figured my teeth weren’t going anywhere. And for a while, they weren’t, until I was long past my college partying days, making a sincere effort to brush at least once a day, and getting regular medical checkups. The little spot on that back tooth had grown. I was still in the habit of checking out those back teeth. It had developed into the habit of looking mournfully in the mirror, knowing that eventually I’d have to make a dental appointment to get that filled, and wondering how complicated the insurance was going to be. Foolishly, I waited. It didn’t hurt. No need to go to a doctor for something that doesn’t hurt, right?

But then, one day it did hurt. Something was stuck in it. I gave it a good brushing, rinsed with salt water, and it stopped hurting for a couple days, but it started again. I went through this cycle for a few days until it became clear that I would need to see a dentist.

Appointment One:

After calling my insurance company to verify that I did indeed have dental coverage with a $5 copay for office visits, I had the company fax my insurance information over to the only dental office in town that (a) had openings and (b) accepted the particular insurance plan I had. Obviously, when everyone else in town is telling you they can’t get you an appointment until the end of next month and this office says, “Well, I have several openings this week,” you should consider whether you could stand to wait a month. But when there’s a crater in your molar and you find yourself compulsively picking things out of it with the aid of various improvised tools (tooth pick, paper clip, safety pin, earring hook), waiting a solid month just doesn’t feel like an option.

But when I arrived for my appointment, it wasn’t to get a filling or even have a tooth pulled. Since the tooth was not actively hurting at that moment (I had successfully rinsed all the food bits out of it for several days in a row), they gave me a cleaning. A good, 45 minute scrubbing, a painful scrubbing, too. And when I told the hygienist I hadn’t seen a dentist in eight years, she said she’d have to split my cleaning into two visits because there was “so much tartar build up that we won’t be able to get it all in one visit.” Oh, but your insurance will only pay for this type of visit once every six months, and we really can’t wait six months for this, so lets try and get you back in a couple weeks. That’ll be $75 today (you get the discounted rate), and you just pay your $5 copay next time. Oh, yes, I know it’s an unexpected expense and everyone is under pressure in this economy, but this is an investment in your health. You really need this, and you’ll be glad once you’re done. Granted, it’s completely your call. We could just do everything we can for now and then see you back for another regular cleaning in six months, but you will look sortof pathetic if you admit to being bothered by this unexpected yet entirely manageable expense. No pressure, of course.

All this was explained to me as I sat in the dentist’s chair, feet in the air, with what amounted to a small, sharp-edged, dual-action, vibrator-sprinkler jammed into the crevices between my teeth. This went on for 30 minutes before I found myself very briefly the object of attention of one Dr. B, who looked and sounded frighteningly like Ben Stein but with whiter hair and an eerily younger face. He glanced at me, then at my x-ray, made scraping noises with metal objects in my mouth, and told me I would need a root canal. Oh, and those wisdom teeth? They’ll probably need to come out (even though your dentist back home said to leave them alone as long as they’re not bothering you, and they aren’t). But we can talk about that later. After the root canal. For now, give her a treatment plan and schedule a root canal, and I’m out of here because I am a busy man, and it’s not my fault you didn’t brush your teeth enough in college, ya floozy.

Appointment Two:

My tooth started to hurt again, even when I brushed, and using my improvised cleaning tools didn’t help, either. I was rinsing with Listerine several times a day. When the small bottle I carried in my purse ran out, I stopped by Walgreens on the way home from work one day and couldn’t stop myself from taking a swig in the parking lot. Immediately I was confronted with the problem: Where to spit? I couldn’t just lean out the window in rush hour traffic and spit on a neighboring vehicle. I couldn’t open the door and spit on the ground and risk looking like a drunk or a tobacco chewer or both. So, I wedged the full Listerine bottle between my thighs, removed the cup/cap, and spit into it. I drove very carefully the rest of the way home, breaking gently, slowing to a crawl to go over the speed bumps, and merging ever-so-politely in order to avoid upsetting the shot glass of spit and mouthwash that was threatening to ruin my pride and the upholstery of my car.

I called the dentist the next day.

“I have an appointment for a root canal, but I want to know if I can come in sooner. My tooth is really hurting.”

“You don’t have an appointment for a root canal. Your appointment is for a cleaning. You have to go to the other side of the office to make an appointment with the doctor.”

“No one told me that. I thought I was making an appointment for my root canal.”

“Nope. But I can get you in for a root canal … next week?”

“Well, no one told me that was an option. I really need to think about this, but let me make the appointment now, and I’ll at least get to talk to the doctor when I go in.”

I made a lunch time appointment because I don’t like to take time off work when I can avoid it, and they didn’t have any evening appointments available soon enough. In the interim, I sought advice from people I knew who’d had root canals. Everyone seemed to think it’s best to save the tooth if you can, I chose to proceed with the root canal rather than extract the tooth. I arrived early for my 11 a.m. appointment but sat in the waiting room until 11:15 anyway. By the time I reached the dentist’s chair,  I had made up my mind that I was there to have a root canal. I told Dr. B as much, he administered anesthesia, and began drilling away. The procedure was painless, Dr. B put a temporary filling in my tooth and told me to schedule the second half of the root canal at the front desk.

At the front desk, the receptionist told me I didn’t owe anything since the procedure wasn’t finished yet, however the total cost would be $580 at the end of the next appointment. What happened to the $5 copay? my inner voice screamed, but all I could say was, “They didn’t tell me that.” Then the tears began to flow. An old man who had been sitting the waiting room across from me earlier appeared to smirk at my tears as the receptionist said something about a treatment plan — the treatment plan, yes, that was supposed to explain what was involved in this root canal business. That was supposed to explain all the costs. What happened to the treatment plan? I never got a copy.

I put down $50 that day, left the office sobbing, and left my husband a voice mail in which I could only choke out the words, “Hey, it’s me. I need you to call me, okay?” He called me 30 minutes later, afraid I’d been too drugged to drive back to the office. I did drive, though. I stopped off at Smoothie King to get a liquid lunch, and as I sat in my car, in the rain, in the parking lot,  I struggled to get it together enough to go inside and order a medium Angel Food. I stopped crying and heaving hysterical sighs long enough to get inside, but before I could order, I realized my wallet was missing. I ran out to the car, got the wallet, and came back. The other customers applauded, but one woman looked at me and saw how distressed I was.

“You have too much going on,” she said. “You just need to slow down.” I took a deep breath, nodded, and tried not to cry.

“Are you ok?” She said.

I nodded.

“Do you want a hug?”

I nodded again.

She walked right up and hugged me.

“Ah jeeze,” I said. “I’m really going crazy. I’m hugging a complete stranger … but that’s OK.”

“I’m not a stranger. My name is Tanya.”

Tanya was amazing. She gave me hope. She told me to take care of myself. Don’t make myself sick. She had been a victim of sickness, she said. She was diagnosed with breast cancer just a few months before losing her job. She was living off savings, and she would have her last radiation treatment in a few more days.

“You’re amazing,” I sobbed. “I want you to get better.”

“I am better,” she said. “I have claimed my healing.”

I couldn’t believe I was crying over a root canal. I didn’t tell her. I thanked her profusely and went back to work with a sinus headache (the inevitable result of crying). I tried to tough it out through the day but ended up going home at 4 p.m., at which point I slept, whined, and apologized to my husband for being a burden. The only food I managed to stomach that evening was about four spoonfulls of some kind of mediocre soup and a slice of a baguette.

Appointments Three and Four:

At appointment three, I received the second half of my cleaning, which was far less painful than the first. It was unremarkable.

By appointment four, I had figured out that my extreme emotional reaction was more likely due to the anesthesia than being told the cost of the root canal. I knew I could afford the procedure, even though it was an unexpected an inconvenient expense, so it had to be the drugs. Not to mention that loss of appetite is not at all how I normally cope with bad news. I asked to be treated with a different type of anesthesia if possible. The doctor’s assistant explained that the usual anesthesia actually contains adrenaline, which causes some people to have nervous reactions. Only then did I realize exactly how bad for me that particular anesthesia had been — we’re talking about someone with an anxiety problem, panic attacks, and trouble spending extended periods in groups of people — even if those people are close friends and family. Giving me an extra dose of adrenaline before telling me I owe nearly $600 just doesn’t go over well.

As I sat in the chair pondering all this, the doctor and his assistant prepared and administered a different kind of anesthesia, one which they said was slightly less potent and might wear off more quickly (not a problem, I figured, since the last one had left me numb for much of the day). I few needles to the jaw later, I was numb and just waiting to get the drilling done. Perhaps they didn’t realize how quickly the drugs took effect because Dr. B walked away for a good ten minutes, and in the mean time, my face got droopy, and his assistant remembered something.

“Oh, has anyone given you one of these yet? She said, handing me a form.”

“No, what’s this?”

“This is just a release form giving us permission to do the root canal.”

Should I have stopped her at this point? Should I have protested? Should I have said, “What the hell? You already started the root canal last time I was here. You didn’t give me a treatment plan, didn’t tell me what was involved, didn’t tell me how much it would cost, gave me drugs I wasn’t prepared to cope with, drilled the center out of my tooth and suckered me into a long, drawn-out, multi-visit process, and NOW you’re giving me a release form?” Yeah. I probably should’ve said that. But I didn’t. I signed the form and let them drill into my tooth again because realistically, what dentist would take a patient who was half way through a root canal someone else started? Then they strapped a humiliating device on my mouth. It involved a rubber sheet and something like an old-fashioned head-gear, and I couldn’t stop the mental images of disturbing pseudo-medical porn from flooding my brain. I stared into the blindingly bright light overhead, and decided I would need to see a different dentist as soon as humanly possible.

As the anesthesia wore off, I began to twitch and squirm, and eventually even to moan and jerk away from Dr. B, who administered more anesthesia and soldiered on. Still, he was unable to finish the root canal. I learned later that it was at least in part due to the fact that the root of my tooth formed a 90 degree angle at the bottom, which made it particularly hard to drill. Had I known this earlier, I might have chosen to save myself the pain and extract the tooth right off the bat. But there I was: tooth drilled, root canal nearly finished, thinking if I could just finish this mess, I would reward myself at the end by finding a better dentist. Knowing that at least another $700 in dental fees lay ahead, I paid what was left of my nearly $600 root canal bill although the procedure wasn’t finished. This would allow me to space out the payments and make the $700 seem slightly less painful when it came due.

Appointment Five:

I made my appointment to finish the root canal and to start to post-core and crown process, and in the mean time, I sought out recommendations of dentists. I explored every possible option, and I even considered flying home to Louisiana to see a dentist I trust so I could end this charade with the local dental office once and for all. But within a week, the tooth broke. I swear to God, I was following all the rules, but there you go. The side chipped right off while I was eating French fries, and I must’ve swallowed it by accident. It left the temporary filling exposed. I called the dental office, which was closed. The answering service woman explained that the dentist on call doesn’t respond to anything after 11 p.m., and as it was 11:15, I could choose to either go to the emergency room or just wait until the following morning. I wasn’t bleeding out, so I chose to wait. As I lay in bed that night, I coached myself on what to say the next day. I would tell them to pull the tooth. I would never go back. I would find a new dentist. And if anyone tried to make me feel bad about removing the tooth, I would tell them, “I’ve lost more important things than this tooth.” Silently, I enumerated the many things I’ve lost.

It was the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, and I got a 9:15 appointment with a Dr. M. I was expecting another Ben Stein look alike but was surprised to meet a young female dentist not much older than myself. She had a brunette bob with near-blond highlights. It was apparent that she put some effort into her make up that morning. She looked like someone my age who I wouldn’t be likely to be friends with because we had nothing in common even though she was, by all accounts, a really nice person. She didn’t look like a dentist. She didn’t look like Ben Stein. I had a brief feminist experience in which I came face-to-face with my own ingrained sexism as I realized I wasn’t 100% confident in this young, attractive, friendly and well made-up female dentist. I made a conscious decision to trust her because (a) at least she was nicer than Dr. B, (b) she was my only hope to get rid of this damned tooth, and (c) I needed to get over that sexist bullshit because I wouldn’t have let anyone else get away with saying the same things I was thinking. Be the change you want to see and all that.

Dr. M took a look at my tooth and noted that the break looked rather superficial and she could probably still cap it, and I’d be able to go ahead with the post-core and crown. She took an x ray to make sure the break wasn’t worse than it appeared. She offered to cap the tooth for me, but — and this was my moment of triumph, strange as it may seem — I looked her in the eye, willing my tears back into their ducts, and said, “I really just want to pull the tooth. I want to be done with this. I’ve been round and round with this tooth. I can’t keep taking time off work for this, and I honestly can’t afford it, and I just want you to pull it.” She patted my cheek and said she would do it. She conferred with another doctor about that 90 degree root. She numbed me up with my preferred anesthesia. She worked quickly with her assistant, who happened to be the same person who dealt with me sobbing embarrassingly at the receptionists’ desk a few weeks before. She warned me before doing things that might hurt, “You’re going to feel a lot of pressure here.” And she stopped when I raised my hand to ask for a break. he was everything I wished my first boyfriend would be. It crossed my mind to stay at that dental office as long as I could only make appointments with her. I was in love with Dr. M.

After much pushing, prodding and pulling, I heard and felt a crack somewhere beneath my gum line, and Dr. M produced a tooth.

“Cah ah heee?”

“Huh? Oh, sure, just let me get this cleaned up quick. Once we get the root tips out, you can get a look at this.”

There was more digging around in my mouth, then the application of a suction tube to remove the blood, then Dr. M and her assistant left my side briefly. They wanted to take an x ray to be sure all the bits of root had been removed. While they were gone, I lifted my head just enough to see the paper napkin on my chest. It was stained with blood. I felt a little sick and a little proud. Dr. M came back with good news. The x ray showed no pieces of the tooth remained. Dr. M put stitches in my gum; told me how well I’d done; gave me instructions for caring for the wound, 800 mg of Ibuprofen and a prescription for Percoset, which I ended up never taking. She sent me off with a firm warning to eat something before taking any medications. I didn’t get to look at the tooth. I really wanted to see that 90 degree root.

Through the next few days, I poured over the instructions for caring for the extraction site. I meticulously avoided acidic foods and beverages. I did not eat turkey or cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving but stuck to stuffing and other foods soft enough to be mashed with my tongue or chewed on one side. I texted a friend in a tizzy when I found a piece of noodle slouched in the hole where my tooth once was. The noodle did not respond to the “gentle rinsing” described by the dental assistant. My friend texted her mother, who was also a dental assistant. Word came back: I could rinse, but no spitting, sucking, or sneezing was allowed. The noodle was defeated. On Friday, I sneezed. By Saturday night, I allowed myself beer, the effects of which were heightened by several days of a mostly liquid diet. We had a party, and at 1 a.m., we went to the Double T Diner, where I had baklava.

Nearly a week after the extraction, I sat dully tonguing the stitches in my gums, trying not to interfere with the healing yet unable to resist my compulsion to fidget. I suckled my beer gently. The stitches were coming loose, and the thread dangled in the back of my mouth like the lose yarn on an of an old sweater. I ached to pull on that thread, to unravel it just to see what would happen. In two days, I would have an appointment to get the stitches removed, but I worried about the loose thread. I simply couldn’t cope with the prospect of complications — infection, abscess, dry socket, which I nearly had panic attacks avoiding — I had been cautious for a week, and I didn’t need a reason to spend even more time and money on my floozy teeth. But that night,  I pictured all the beer I’d had over the weekend, how I’d heard the effervescence from soda could dissolve or dislodge the blood clot and cause dry socket — how much worse could beer be? I lay in bed imagining my stitches coming undone and my precious blood clot washing away in rivers of beer until I fell asleep. In the morning, I worried that the final checkup would result in the doctor conjuring up some other issue for which I would require some other expensive treatment. I considered cutting the last remaining stitch with nail scissors and skipping bail.

Appointment Six:

On the day my stitches were to be removed, the husband and I had to carpool because his car was in the shop. Despite a frantic day at the office, I spent much of the day imagining finally being free of my unraveling stitches. I tried not to fidget, and while standing in line at the Indian buffet where I went to lunch with my coworkers, I had just enough self-control not to say, “Today,  I’m getting the stitches out of my gums from that tooth extraction I had last week.” After work, my husband dropped me off at the dentist’s office and went across the street to get himself a cup of coffee. I warned him: They always run at least 15 minutes late, so even if we get there on time, they won’t see me till 5:30. He planned to be back by six. I walked up stairs, signed in at the front desk, and by the time I finished hanging my jacket, a dental assistant was there to call me back. She sat me down, snipped the one remaining stitch from my gum, and rinsed the wound with salt water. It didn’t hurt at all. It felt instantly better, in fact, as the temptation to fidget was removed. When she went to get the dentist, she left the little wad of thread on the tray beside me. It looked like a small dead bug with a bit of mush (probably rice pudding) caked on the wings. Or like something you might find in the bathtub drain.

Then my Dr. M returned.

“How are you?” She said cheerfully.

“A thousand times better than I was last time!”

“How about the day of the extraction? That was one hell of an extraction, huh? Did you have a lot of pain?”

“Not really. I turned in the prescription you gave me but I never ended up taking it. I just took Ibuprofen for a couple days.”

She was enthusiastic about this news. I gazed into her green eyes (enhanced by colored contacts, but beautiful nonetheless) and noticed how much she resembled one of my heroes, Carlin Ross.

Dr. M leaned me back in the chair one last time. She swiped her finger along my gum line, looking for swelling and irritation, commenting that the healing seemed to be coming along fine. She said it would heal even faster now that the sutures were out of the way. Sutures, I thought. Yes. I had forgotten that word. She reviewed my chart, saw that I had no need to come in for any appointments any time soon, and encouraged me to take a break, rest up, and enjoy the holidays. And that was that. On the way out the door, I checked in with the receptionist about my refund for the root canal. In the car on the drive home, I took a photo for posterity. I wondered if I would ever see Dr. M again. Then we went out for hamburgers.



*Please note that all dialogue in this piece is paraphrased. I wasn’t taking notes in the dentists’ chair as I was hoping all along that this would not be the type of medical experience that merited an essay, especially one of this length. If I had known it was going to be so dramatic, I would’ve brought a tape recorder.


It’s three o’clock in the morning and I’m panicking.

I woke up with the worst pain in my abdomen.

To be more specific, it feels as though someone has reached inside me and is squeezing my innards as they attempt to rip them from my body.

I’ve already woken Tony up twice.

The first time was to ask him where it would hurt if I were about to die from appendicitis. He assured me it would be in my side.

He has a scar where I would approximate the appendix to be, so I’m pretty sure he knows about these things.

OK then, it’s not appendicitis.

The second time was to tell him I think I need to go to the hospital because I think I’m about to die of Toxic Shock Syndrome. And to apologize for being such a bitch last night.

If you’re about to die, it’s always best to apologize for things like that. Especially if you’re me because I’ve always wronged somebody in some way.

Tony assured me that I’m not going to die and I don’t need to go to the hospital.

Ambulance

And so I took some Advil and continued to lie in bed awaiting my imminent death.

“It’s probably just indigestion. Maybe you ate something bad,” he said.

Yeah, maybe he’s right.

But, oh God this hurts!

No, no, why isn’t the Advil working? Advil always works when I have cramps.

No, surely this is Toxic Shock Syndrome. Or something much worse.

Should I get out of bed and look for the information pamphlet? I’ve read that information pamphlet 600 times. How do I not remember the symptoms of Toxic Shock?

Yogapose

I try to stay calm.

I try yoga positions.

I try lying on my stomach and massaging my ab muscles.

I try lying on my back.

I lie in the fetal position.

Nothing is making this go away.

And all I can think about is the plight of 20-somethings and middle-income workers in today’s world. There are hospitals all over the city. There are firefighters, doctors, policemen, paramedics, all waiting for a call for help.

And yet. And yet, we can’t call. We can’t call because all we can think about is: What if I’m wrong? What if I’m not dying of TSS? I’ll have wasted all that money. I’ll never be able to pay the bills. I’ll be in financial ruin, especially here in France where I have no Social Security to reimburse me.

No, it’s better to risk death.

If there’s no fire, no blood, no mangled limbs, then there’s no reason to call 911.

Oh God, I don’t even know the number for 911 in France! Jesus, how do I not know this? What if this is serious?

OK. OK. Calm down.

Let’s go get that pamphlet on Toxic Shock Syndrome.

Here it is.

I look at the pamphlet. It’s in at least 10 different languages, none of them English.

Tampax

Wait. What?! This is an American brand!* I’ve been using this since I was 16!** They have to have this information in English somewhere.

Surely this can’t be right. Calm down and check the languages again.

See there, there’s an “E” over that one.

Phew! OK.

Shit. No, I was wrong. “E” is for “Espagne.” What you need is “GB” for “Great Britain.”

Yep, that’s not here.

OK. OK. All is not lost. You speak French. Do you remember you speak French? You’ve been speaking French for 10 years! You can figure this out. And even if you can’t, remember that you have that giant English/French dictionary next to the bed.

Img_6544

Whoever thought of using a universal language for scientific words is a genius! Hm. I never knew Toxic Shock Syndrome was caused by Staphylococcus. No wonder it’s fatal.

Rebecca? Rebecca! Did you forget what you were looking for?

Oh yes. OK, here we are: symptoms.

I don’t have any of the symptoms, although I’m pretty sure I am blanched, but maybe that’s because it’s 3 a.m. But no vomiting so far, although I’m suddenly feeling nauseous. Um, nope, no diarrhea, no sore muscles, no feeling like I’ve been sunburned, no dizzy spells when I stand up.

So I take some Midol. I hate Midol because it has caffeine in it and it gives me the jitters.

I lie back in bed and try to concentrate on anything but the pain.

As I’m lying there I begin to be more logical. I rethink my original self-diagnosis, and I’m pretty sure this is actually just a really bad case of menstrual cramps brought on by having started taking the pill again this month. They say that can be a side effect, even though the commercials always promise less cramping and lighter periods.

Ah yes, the Midol is taking effect. Thank goodness Tony wasn’t easily talked into going to the hospital this morning. I’d hate to be in financial ruin for nothing but paranoia.

*Side note for you doubters: Tampax is indeed an American brand. It was started in Denver, CO, according to their Web site.

**Since the age of 16, I have been freaking out at least two or three times a year about Toxic Shock Syndrome. In fact, TSS is the reason it took me five years to start using tampons in the first place. I would have never changed over if it hadn’t been for joining the water polo team in high school.