Bad memories and a call to action on health care

One year ago today I was battling an ear infection that turned bad enough to put me in the hospital for a week.

What I went through then was among the worst experiences of my life. Yet looking back on the experience, I realize how lucky I was.

The rest of the story is after the jump.

I was diagnosed early enough to avoid life-threatening complications.

Before I was sick enough to require hospitalization, I had multiple x-rays, a doppler scan and an MRI. Shortly after I was admitted, I had more x-rays and a CT-scan. If I had delayed seeking medical care for another day or two, my systemic strep infection might have spread to joints or internal organs, which would have required many weeks of intravenous antibiotics. The infection might even have become life-threatening.

More and more Americans hold off on seeing a doctor in order to save money. The problem isn’t limited to the uninsured either. Even laboratory testing companies are feeling a pinch because of this trend.

My doctor referred me to the top infectious disease specialist in my area.

Since my hospitalization, I’ve told my story to many doctors. Quite a few have remarked that they are glad I was under the care of that particular infectious disease doctor. Never having had a serious infection before, I could not have known whom to request. Without the medical insurance that pays for my routine annual physicals, I would not have had a relationship with the doctor who looked out for me and got me on the caseload of the best specialist.

The bacteria that made me sick responded to antibiotics.

The ID doc put me on three “heavy-hitter” IV antibiotics at first, but two days later when my ear culture came back as strep A, she switched me to “good old-fashioned penicillin,” which did the trick. I also didn’t pick up any secondary infections in the hospital. It helped that I only had one IV port. Again, if I had delayed seeking medical care until the situation was more critical, I might have ended up in the intensive care unit with more tubes going into my body and more opportunities for infection.

Drug-resistant bacteria are a growing problem on hospital wards, thanks to the overuse of antibiotics in humans and livestock. I know someone who acquired a drug-resistant staph infection after giving birth, and it almost killed her.

Veering off-topic for a moment, one of my pet peeves is when people claim not to believe in evolution. I always want to ask them, “Do you believe bacteria can sometimes become resistant to antibiotics? Because if you do, you believe in natural selection.”

Getting back to my good fortune a year ago, my period of intense pain was limited.

I’ll never forget how painful cellulitis was, but by the time I was discharged from the hospital, extra-strength ibuprofen was sufficient to manage the pain. Within six weeks the pain in my leg was gone, and I was able to go back to my usual exercise routine. Some people live with chronic, severe pain indefinitely, lacking insurance coverage or the means to pay out of pocket for pain-killers. If they are very lucky, a friend might help them pay for the prescription they need.

I suffered no lasting damage to my health.

The ear, nose and throat doc had warned me that I could have permanent hearing loss in the affected ear, but the ruptured eardrum healed up just fine. He also told me that on the rare occasions when he or his colleagues had seen an ear infection go really bad, it usually caused meningitis or facial paralysis. I’ll take cellulitis of the leg any day.

My illness didn’t leave me in financial ruin.

When I first blogged about my illness last year, some commenters warned me that I should be prepared for gargantuan bills or a huge battle with my insurer. As it turned out, my insurer covered almost all of the expenses. I never did figure out exactly how much the illness cost, because bills and statements were still arriving months later (almost never itemized). We were so relieved the day we got the biggest bill, for $18,000, and our portion was only $600. I recognize that paying $600 would be a hardship for many families, but we were fortunate to be able to settle that bill that without cutting back on any essentials.

Medical problems are a leading cause of bankruptcies in the U.S. and create incalculable stress and hardship even for families who do not go bankrupt. Last year the uncovered expenses from AdmiralNaismith‘s wife’s embolism totaled more than he earns in three months.

Although I have long supported health care reform, my experience last year gave me a new sense of urgency about this issue. I benefited from “the best health care in the world,” but so many of my neighbors would have fared worse had they suffered the same kind of infection.

My greatest wish for President Barack Obama and his Secretary of Health and Human Services, whoever that turns out to be, is that they will not “pre-compromise” and start negotiations with a health care package they think Congress will accept.

It may be too much to hope that Obama would get behind the best fix for our broken system, but he should aim very high.

Republicans’ pride in their near-unanimous opposition to the stimulus bill should dissuade the president from moving even a millimeter in their direction when the debate begins on health care. They want to build a comeback on Obama’s failure and will do nothing to help him succeed.

As for the Congressional Democrats who stand in the way of the change we need, I hope Obama will use the bully pulpit to shame them into action. Recent opinion polls on health care have shown huge dissatisfaction with the status quo and growing support for government-run, guaranteed health care. Lyndon Johnson pushed members of Congress further than they were initially willing to go on some issues, notably civil rights. Obama’s approval ratings are high, and what better way to spend his political capital than to deliver on universal health care?

This thread is for any insight about the substance of health care reform or the best political strategy for doing it right.

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  • Hate to sound like a broken record...

    but, uhhmmm, NATIONALIZE?

    • I'm with you on this one

      From the Leadership Conference for Guaranteed Health Care:




        1. Everybody In, Nobody Out. Universal means access to health care for everyone, period.

        2. Portability. If you are unemployed, or lose or change jobs, your health coverage stays with you.

        3. Uniform Benefits. No Cadillac plans for the wealthy and Pinto plans for everyone else, with high deductibles, limited services, caps on payments for care, and no protection in the event of a catastrophe. One level of comprehensive care for everyone, regardless of the size of your wallet.

        4. Prevention. By removing financial roadblocks, a universal health system encourages preventive care that lowers an individual’s ultimate cost and pain and suffering when problems are neglected and societal cost in the over-utilization of emergency rooms or the spread of communicable diseases.

        5. Choice. Most private insurance restricts your choice of providers and hospitals. Under the U.S. National Health Insurance Act, patients have a choice, and the provider is assured a fair payment.

        6. No Interference with Care. Caregivers and patients regain their autonomy to decide what’s best for a patient’s health, not what’s dictated by the billing department. No denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions or cancellation of policies for “unreported” minor health problems.

        7. Reducing Waste. One third of every private health insurance dollar goes for paperwork and profits, compared to about 3% under Medicare, the federal government’s universal system for senior citizen healthcare.

        8. Cost Savings. A guaranteed health care system can produce the cost savings needed to cover everyone, largely by using existing resources without the waste. Taiwan, shifting from a U.S. private health care model, adopted a similar system in 1995, boosting health coverage from 57% to 97% with little increase in overall health care spending.

        9. Common Sense Budgeting. The public system sets fair reimbursements applied equally to all providers, private and public, while assuring that appropriate health care is delivered, and uses its

           clout to negotiate volume discounts for prescription drugs and medical equipment.

       10. Public Oversight. The public sets the policies and administers the system, not high priced CEOs meeting in private and making decisions based on their company’s stock performance needs.