On May 12th of this year my wife and I had just arrived for her birthday dinner. Right after we sat down my cell phone rang. The call was from a calm and cheerful lady in Winchester, VA, some seven hours, by car, from my home.
Her voice and demeanor were so matter of fact it required her repeating herself at least once, and I fear probably more times, before I understood what she was telling me. It seems my youngest daughter, on the way home from college in Boston with two of her friends, coming to our home to “experience the South while it is still here,” flipped her car three times and was in the emergency room.
Thankfully, the two passengers were unhurt, except for bruises and scratches and, perhaps, some real trauma associated with such an experience. My daughter, however, was another story. She had received a severe blow to the head that fractured her skull and resulted in a hematoma. She had also broken her neck in two places, very high up on her spinal column.
Miraculously, she was otherwise uninjured and she retained all her physical and mental facilities. However, when the lady who called finished with me, they put me through to the neurosurgeon on call. This doctor, himself one of God’s own miracles, calmly explained that, while my daughter was exceptionally lucky to be in the shape she was in, given the severity of her injuries, she was, by no means, out of the woods. He reminded me of the late Natasha Richardson’s recent skiing accident and how it had appeared she was safe only to be killed by a growing blood clot in her brain. He also pointed out that a break so high on the spinal column remained a real cause for concern as, should it worsen for any reason, a long host of terrible things could be in store, the least of which would be paralysis.
The calm steady explanations the doctor offered were, paradoxically, both reassuring and terrifying. They reassured because it was clear my daughter, hundreds of miles away with no family to attend her, was in goods hands. Terrifying, because he pulled no punches and in his undramatic manner he let me know what was at stake. He asked permission to operate should the hematoma show signs of growth which my wife and I gave. Afterward, we hung up and drove to Virginia full of questions, concerns, no answers and no comfort other than one another’s company.
Our two older children, who both live in New York, dropped what they were doing, caught an express train to DC and grabbed a friend of my son’’s car and beat us to Winchester by many hours. So, for the last several hours of our trip, we had the comfort of knowing our injured daughter was not alone.
Once there, I discovered that my daughter’s car, a Toyota that did its job protecting my daughter’s friends and her, as best it could, had, essentially, split open on the highway after rolling three times. As a result, the possessions of the travelers were strewn down the interstate over a wide area. These were collected by the EMS people and the wrecker driver, when possible, and the hulk of the vehicle was towed to the yard.
It was only after I found my daughter’s wallet in the remains of the car that I discovered her health insurance card. It was only then, after my daughter had been treated for major trauma injuries and given excellent care for those injuries that it occurred to me that, in my conversation with the lady who placed the call and the doctor who explained the full scope of the situation, there was one subject no one mentioned. No one asked me about my daughter’s health insurance, not until days after the accident.
I still find that remarkable. Ultimately, my daughter spent sixteen days in the hospital. Her stay included six full days in ICU, one emergency craniotomy, ten days in a private room, both physical therapy and occupational therapy, a course of pain management that could keep Rush Limbaugh stoned, a variety of neck braces and, for the most part excellent medical care.
Home now and, with my daughter well on the way to full recovery, dealing with the bills, I am struck with two, again paradoxical, images of health care in America. First, and this is due to the fortuitous location of the accident, so near the fabulous medical facility and personnel of the Winchester Hospital, her care was excellent. No one could reasonably hope for better medical care than my daughter received. Since the treatment was begun and was being continued long before anybody got around to retrieving our health insurance information, I assume the same standard of care would have been available to anyone who bounced in off I-85.
The second image is, after the relief of disaster averted comes the long tail of costs incurred. I won’t go into what everything cost, but it was a very expensive trip to the mountains. Far, far more expensive than the entire cost of travel and accommodation and board for my entire family, and one guest for each child, for a month in Barcelona.
Without health insurance, the costs would have bankrupted my wife and me. This was not an expense that can be blamed upon poor living habits or, even, bad driving habits. It was, and is, simply an example of how everything can turn, without notice, in an instant. How, in less than the time it takes to blink an eye, all the settled patterns of life can be overturned. It is an example of how you can move from a quiet, family celebration to a seven hour drive to a place you had never heard of, a drive through the night, fighting panic and fear and dark concerns of an uncertain future.
At such times you do not think of money. You have no fear of bankruptcy. In truth, there is no price you will not pay or, at least, promise to pay. Yet, when the crisis is past, there is a limit to what can be paid.
The current system of providing health care in America is unfair to everyone involved in providing and receiving that care. Perhaps it is not unfair to the insurers of that care. However, they are not involved in giving or receiving care. Insurers squat in the middle of this specialized form of economic exchange and rake off money. Otherwise, they provide no function; they add no value to the transaction.
Other than to make money, health insurers serve no purpose. The doctors who treated my daughter did so without concern for her insurance. I am sure they were happy to hear that she did have insurance and that they would be paid at least some of their fees and costs. Never the less, they began her treatment long before they knew, one way or the other. My daughter, my wife and myself cared only that she receive the treatment she required to survive and recover.
Don’t get me wrong, once the crisis passed, I am glad we have health insurance. However, I would be so much happier if everybody did. I would be so much happier if the question of health insurance, like it is in most developed nations, simply never came up. No American should have to be without the health care they require, period. If that means giving up a couple of aircraft carriers, then so be it. I doubt it will come to that, aircraft carriers holding such a special place in the affections of Congressmen and women, but if it did, I am prepared to make that sacrifice. You should be too. The next call from Winchester could be for you.