Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation
No matter what I do, I cannot stop the terror. Like in the places where flood waters are rising in and around so many homes in the Midwest this week, some of us face immanent dangers in life that overshadow the endless coverage of Osama Bin Laden’s death. It feels sometimes like there are alternate realities playing out as those who have the luxury to indulge in the latest global terror threats and reactions thereto can remain blissfully above and beyond the pallor of the daily terrors millions of Americans face every day just trying to live in dignity in a system gone mad on money and profit.
I heard Michael Moore mention this theme the other night during a CNN interview, and I know some of the wealthy and powerful get it. But far too few give a damn what happens this Mother’s Day in homes across America where the threats of unrelenting horror come calling more surely than a Hallmark greeting ever does.
American patients keep suffering and dying as their illnesses don’t get placed on hold for the current breaking news cycle, and caregivers find fewer ways to put their own oxygen masks on first so that we can help those around us. I saw it again this week as I accessed our health system as an insured American, and I was blindsided again. I should be beyond surprise at the inhumanity of it all, but I keep being shocked each time our healthcare system lashes out in protection of its profits over the interests of its patients.
Since early in 1991 when my husband first felt the pangs of his impending heart and artery issues, we have been under assault while keeping him alive within the for-profit healthcare system. Our way of life built with hard work and sacrifice was stripped from us (as recounted in SiCKO), and though we work diligently to rebuild, there are no moments during which we can let our guard down lest our personal history repeats itself.
I arrived with my husband (Medicare and supplemental coverage) to our cardiology office. We both see this group, so we might well warrant a Smith family line item in their accountings. Hubby had an appointment scheduled for early morning. As he signed in, the office staff told him his appointment was actually for the afternoon. He stared. That’s not a mistake he normally makes. I had taken a few hours off to accompany him and to get my own lab tests done (and taking that time is an artful dance all in itself as many Americans know).
Finally, we asked if we could just have a copy of the test results that were to be discussed at the now delayed appointment. The staff member printed them out and handed them to us. I grabbed the sheet hoping to see first whether the news was good or bad. More than 70 percent blockage in two spots. The words instantly began the process for me that I have been through so many times as my husband’s illness has assaulted him. My own fear and hurt and anger must be deferred as I launch into the reassurance and resolve to get more information mode. In less than 30 seconds, I can make that shift now. In less than 30 seconds, my instinct to protect my husband takes over. A cool head is required at this stage of another unfolding crisis, and certainly standing there in an open waiting room area finding out this sort of news with no reassurance from medical professionals is not the optimal way for the situation to play out.
While we were there in our doctors’ offices, I decided I should see if they would do a quick check on my blood pressure. I am insured, and I have also been their patient for years. I’ve taken BP meds for years, just like my mom has to, but I have the added concern about an aortic aneurysm discovered long ago that is so far stable but needs to be monitored and definitely needs me to be in good control of my blood pressures. A new medication has been added recently and I had some ill effects from that, so doing a quick check seemed a good idea. My husband was also very concerned about me, so getting checked would be another way to reassure him and take some of the pressure off the intensity of this moment for him.
Asking to have my blood pressure checked at my own doctor’s office proved to be an error that created terror. Once I had asked for the assistance, I had entered the alternate reality of the healthcare system in America. Blood pressure, I was told, cannot be checked unless you make an appointment. I pressed enough that they decided to call to the back office, and I was told to sit down and wait a few minutes. Once inside, the medical staff expressed their displeasure with me for even having sought a blood pressure reading in such an impromptu way. Truly. I was lectured and scolded harshly for not having gone to my primary care doctor for such a check and for expecting them to do it on this day. I sat there fighting back the tears that had been welling up since my husband and I glanced at his medical test results just moments before. I felt so angry about how I was being treated that I wanted to just say, “Nevermind,” and stand up and leave, but I feared telling my husband who was sitting out in the waiting room now how I had been treated on the heels of his appointment snafu. I didn’t want to upset him more. I must have said I was sorry for disrupting their day about 20 times in the attempt to diffuse the situation. Suffice to say, it was an abusive several minutes before I actually had my blood pressure taken.
I left that office with an appointment to see the doctor next week for follow up, but I also left with so much distrust and sadness. I could see that I wasn’t a patient to them at that point. The only thing that mattered was that once I had asked for that BP check, I had set into motion the steps this system takes to prevent financial loss not the steps it takes to protect human life. They were now forced to check me for that two minutes lest I leave there and then have some sort of medical emergency that having the BP check might have foreshadowed. The only reason they did that check for me was to cover themselves from potential legal and financial liability. I was incidental. Patients are incidental.
The terror I keep facing – and millions of us face – is one we face alone. It isn’t fear from my aneurysm or stroke or heart attack or fear about my husband’s arterial blockages. Our terror comes from living as working class people within a system that sees everything about us as incidental to the attainment of more profit and more power. We are patients who live as profits or the threat to profits.
The greatest gift anyone could give me on Mother’s Day would be a few moments of relief from the sense of impending doom and the constant vigilance that has had to mark my days for the past 20 years. We could give that to each other by providing healthcare as a human right instead of what we have now. Because what we have now is terrifying in ways Osama Bin Laden didn’t even conjure up.
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