The various pains of health care
I was already twisting my hands in agitation in the hospital reception area when the text pinged — from my other son, not the one going in for surgery.
“Lost my wallet last night,” it read.
Ted, 21, studying in Madrid this semester, was in Prague on spring break. He wrote, “I’m so screwed.”
Mind you, this is the same son who last month texted — from his computer, having broken his phone at a festival because he was wearing a Dalmatian costume, an explanation he believed made sense — that he was ill. Fever, chills, swollen lymph nodes, stiffness.
That text chain had bloomed to dozens of messages. I told Ted to go to a doctor, a clinic. I asked if he had the overseas insurance card I had given him. No: He’d put a pic of the card on his phone.
“Gotten much worse,” he added of his state.
“Go to the doctor! You could be really sick,” I wrote, hastily finding and sending an electronic copy of the insurance card.
Then: “just woke up,” he wrote. “high fever. can’t think straight” (sic).
“Go to the doctor.” It was by then nighttime in Spain. “Ask Deklan to go with you.”
“i don’t really want to move.”
I invoked travelers’ illnesses, pasted in a link about meningitis. He just wanted to sleep. Finally came a grudging, “Fine.”
I called his college’s home campus just before it closed, was given a number for an administrator in Madrid, and told him to call her.
“i don’t have a phone,” he reminded me.
“Just go. Take insurance card.”
“mom I dont just have a way to suddenly print that out.” (sic)
“Then bring your computer.”
“this is stupid.”
He finally capitulated, though refusing to ask anyone to accompany him, and returned home at 2 a.m., thankfully juiced with antibiotics for some sort (the diagnosis was in Spanish) of infection of the lymph nodes.
Now, back to three Wednesdays ago.
Roy, 18, who had injured his elbow lifting weights, and I arrived on time at noon for his registration and surgery. But I was asked to sign a document saying I’d be responsible for paying twice the amount of our already giant out-of-pocket maximum.
I told the receptionist the amount was wrong. She said her co-worker had checked with my insurance. I protested again; she said the person checked again.
Ted texted from Prague: “No cash. No way to get any.” Pickpocketed in Spain, he’d canceled his debit card.
My cell phone wouldn’t call out from the hospital, so I borrowed the receptionist’s phone to seek help from my insurance agent, Karen. She, mercifully, was not out to lunch, and pulled up my policy.
The receptionist’s phone buzzed; she had to take the call from someone else’s desk. It was the surgery department, calling for Roy.
I texted Ted, “At hospital. Tied up.”
Karen confirmed policy details, offered to sit in on a conference call. But now the co-worker, whose face I never saw, only her back through a glass door, was on another call.
A horrifying thought struck me. We had gotten a new insurance policy this year, but twice now the company had failed to use the autowithdrawal payment I’d set up. Early the previous month I’d had to call customer service, wait on hold and inquire whether we remained insured. The answer was no; I paid on the spot with my credit card, receiving an apology and, three weeks later, reimbursement.
The customer-service rep had assured me that future autowithdrawals were all set. But now, on the first of April, with surgery imminent and the insurance company already making a mistake, I texted my husband to check. No autowithdrawal. I yearned to call customer service, but sat tormented waiting for the hospital’s conference call to begin … then to end. Day-surgery phoned for Roy again.
Fifty minutes after our arrival, the receptionist dispassionately said, “It’s OK.”
A waiting surgery nurse said, “So we’re OK?” I emitted a nervous yes, but asked to make one more call. No time. I followed Roy down halls, and dashed out a side door, dialing with shaky hands and waiting on hold for customer service.
I reached a rep. Yes. We were covered.
Ted, plaintive in Prague, texted again.
“Femaelstrom” appears on the third Friday of each month. Alison Osius lives in Carbondale, where she is a climber, skier and magazine editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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In a fraction of a second I went from a full sprint to skidding across the ground — pea-sized gravel gashing my knees and elbows, turning them into strawberry crisp.