Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A cancer-phobic's indictment of the health care industry

The high cost and limited payoff of health care insurance is nothing new. But I think it helps to share stories of our own struggles in the hopes that somebody with the power to fix it out there is listening. So I'm about to offer my own, personal, embarrassing indictment of the health care system.

The first thing you need to know about me is that I am a cancer-phobic. Step back! you say. Aren't we all? Yes, of course. But I take it to a whole new level. My grandfather died of lung cancer when I was 8, and since then I've only had acquaintances who have battled the terrible disease, so I'm honestly not sure what implanted this debilitating seed in my psyche. But since my early 20s, there has not been a single day when I wasn't sure I had some variety of cancer. It seems to travel in my body, too. Like when I was 25, I was convinced I had a tumor in my left shoulder. I didn't have health insurance, so I went to Open Door, and a lovely doctor indulged my fears and did a chest x-ray. It, of course, came up clean. And I later realized the pain I had been feeling in the front of my left shoulder was from holding my hard, plastic phone receiver between my head and shoulder for hours a day.

This is a good time to pause and say that I'm not proud of this neurosis of mine.

Anyway, about two years ago, I started to get a twinge in my back, between my spine and my right shoulder blade. It began as a little pinch. And I couldn't tie it to any event. Did something tear when my dog lunged for a squirrel on a walk? Not sure. I can't remember injuring it.

Several months later, I went to the doctor. The pain had increased to be a constant dull ache throughout the day. I was told that it was muscular, and I should take Ibuprofin.

About a year later, the pain had become like a bruise. I liken it to feeling like someone had punched me in the back. And at night, especially, it throbs and aches. Clearly, there must be something physically going on in there that isn't healing, I though. So I went to the doctor again.

I was told the problem was muscular by a doctor who didn't even look at my back. And I was offered muscle relaxers. I went home, still dealing with the same problem I had been dealing with for 18 months.

A week later, I decided I wasn't satisfied with this response. I HATE calling a clinic or hospital because you leave messages, and you're asked what you're calling about by nurses and others, and how could I put all of the above onto a post-it note message for my doctor? Then it takes days to get a call back. So I like to write letters.

I wrote to my doctor that after 18 months of pain, I felt I deserved a scan of some sort to get a look at the area, just to make sure it wasn't serious. To my surprise, she ordered the MRI for the very next day.

The trouble came when I called my insurance company. I have a $750 deductible, and then, after that, the insurance would cover 80 percent of the cost. That means, for one scan of my back, I would pay about $1,000 out of pocket.

I do not have $1,000. I don't even have $100 extra per month to make payments to the clinic. So, basically, my peace of mind was about to literally bankrupt me. What if nothing came up on the scan? $1,000 down the drain. What if something did come up? How much more would I have to pay for whatever was wrong?

I decided I couldn't afford it. So for the past few months since that visit, I've continued to live with the upper back pain, which is constant.

The other even more debilitating side to this -- even though I fully know that this is my neurosis talking -- is that every single night, without fail, I wake up in the middle of the night, and I ABSOLUTELY CONVINCE MYSELF that it's cancer. Everyone I know tells me how stupid that sounds. And I know it does. But it's truth in my mind. I can't explain it. During that early morning hour, I'm so convinced that the throbbing in my back is a tumor that I'm near tears. It's some sort of mental illness, like OCD of some sort.

So it's not just that $1,000 is standing in the way of fixing whatever tear or whatever the back pain might actually be. But it's also causing loss of sleep and shear panic every single night.

I'd go see a counselor about this weird cancer-phobic OCD thing of mine, but my insurance doesn't cover those visits.

So I find myself without many choices here. And I often wonder how things would be different if I lived in Canada or Norway or somewhere. I probably would have waited a good, long time to schedule the MRI, but I bet it would have been done, for free, within a couple of months of me complaining of this back pain.

Anyway, this problem pales in comparison to the terrible health issues so many people are dealing with -- issues that have bankrupted their families as they're dealing with them. But if we all share our stories, maybe someone who can help will eventually listen.

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