Welcome To America; Just Don’t Get Sick Here.

A few weeks ago, my husband had a tooth infection and had to go to the emergency room.

The pain was so bad that I couldn’t comprehend why he had just put off going. He wasn’t a child (although his appetite and intelligence suggest otherwise), so it’s not like any teeth that would fall out were going to grow back.

We took a cab ride to the hospital, then checked in at reception, who told us to wait in a grim-looking seating area with weird-smelling seats and a giant tank full of angry, bitter, fighting fish. Even they didn’t want to be here.

We then went into a tiny Triage-type room that was actually for “registration”, where they asked if we had health insurance. No…we don’t. A non-doctor, non-nurse looking prepubescent with a clipboard asked a few standardised questions (what is it with you people and the standardised tests?), then told us to wait in an adjacent room. Someone resembling slightly more of a medical professional started asking a few more questions, took my husband’s blood pressure and again asked us if we had health insurance.

We were then merrily advised that we were eligible to be put into the “Fast Track” lane. Wow. What did we have to do for that? Turn up when no-one else was there? Why is it Fast Track? Did we win a prize? What about the fish?

no, none of the fish looked like this. but the fights would have been cooler.

About half an hour later we finally got to go through another set of doors and play another round of Soporific Musical Chairs. Another tweener in last season’s Juicy pink velour knock-off tracksuit asked us if we had health insurance and I was beginning to wonder what the hell they kept writing on all those fucking clipboards.

After waiting for another 15-20 minutes, someone who might have been a doctor (but never formally identified himself) came out to brutally inject some anaesthetic into my husband’s gums for an incision after lying to him that it wasn’t really going to hurt much. He then left him with a hollowed-out PEZ dispenser to suck out the underlying pus, blood, saliva and blood from his tooth.

Pink velour tracksuit chav girl came back out with another new person who also asked us whether or not we had health insurance. Resisting the urge to smack her in the nuts, I advised her that we didn’t, but her job of clearly avoiding the related paperwork was meant to be much easier by advising me that we could get on a few state health plans.

It was then that we both told her that, as I am an immigrant, I am not entitled to go on any of those state-funded plans, because I cannot be a public charge. This also applies to my husband, which prompted her to brain-fart out “Wow, yeah, you’re the second or third person who’s said that this week”.

Although I wasn’t surprised that she was clearly unable to distinguish between the numbers two and three over the course of 7 days, it was still shocking that she couldn’t seem to perform this clearly minute, granular, one-note job she had, which was knowing her shit about health insurance plans. Because if she didn’t know this, then how were we supposed to know?

There is nowhere you can go to get any decent information on something like this. I wonder how many immigrants (legal, illegal, out of status etc) know that they are not eligible to go on these kind of programs. I haven’t tested what happens, so I don’t know if I would get “caught out” for even applying to them, but it seems that the only information that I can get has been from my immigration lawyer. Why is that? Are USCIS just waiting for people like me to make one wrong move and then they’re out?

The fact is, I was spoiled by growing up in a country with generous benefits systems, but I was lucky enough to never have the need to use them.  But there I was surprised that, even though I knew I wasn’t getting free healthcare, but that there was nowhere for me to go (like NHS Direct or CAB) to just get…information.

My thoughts on having to pay for healthcare could be an under-edited novel in itself. So for now, I’d rather focus on the quality of what I’m supposed to be paying for. I’m used to getting value for money, in fact, very much value for very little money. So when I pay the following:

  • $300 for antibiotics
  • $149 for a doctor’s consultation

I expect the following:

  • correct antibiotics that work
  • more than 2 minutes of doctor-patient time compared to the 4 hours spent in the hospital

I don’t want to pull out (heh) the “I studied Biomedical Science and was raised by a fastidious doctor-type parent” card, but most of this should be common sense. On one of my first visits here, I was battling a a bad cold that had clearly developed into a secondary chest infection (green glowing yellowy phlegm), and I told reception/registration/triage as such.

It didn’t matter. They ignored any mention of my travel insurance or my offer to fetch up my medical history, and forced me to do the following:

  • blood test
  • urine test
  • blood pressure
  • doctor’s consultation

If I had gone through with chest x-rays or any of the other tests they’d suggested, my bill would have been much larger than it was. It doesn’t matter if you know you don’t need a urine test or a blood test – they are not going to “treat” you if you don’t do as they say.

And what happened? After spending hundreds of dollars out-of-pocket, it turned out they had in fact prescribed me the wrong type of antibiotic. Spending nearly $300 on Doxycycline for a chest infection.

10 excruciating days later, I went back home, saw my GP and got the correct prescription for twice the amount of Amoxycillin tablets for £6.99. Cleared up in 4 days, good as new.

I’ve been lucky, because certain other things would have bankrupted me. I’ve never been in a serious accident, I don’t have any chronic illnesses (I never even take paracetamol, really) and I have no allergies. But imagine I was in a car accident and had to take an ambulance. Do you know that would cost me?

Around $700.

Granted, losing your life costs more, but to be living in a developed country that puts such a hefty price tag on something like this is appalling. Ambulances are typically only used in life-threatening emergencies, or something as urgent as going into labour. How can someone be made to think, “My 11 year-old in septic shock isn’t that young to die from her condition instantly, but she might not be old enough to survive the 40-minute drive in rush-hour traffic”.

So what’s the alternative? Just don’t bother thinking about it? It seems that you really and truly are on your own when it comes to healthcare over here, unless you latch onto a partner who already has it, or get it as a “benefit” through your employer. So I guess this is why I’m constantly running into people on the bus/train who have half their teeth missing, are talking to themselves for lack of mental health care, or just generally look like the wrong side of death.

It does make me wonder why something so fundamentally important isn’t as free as, say….banking. And I know it’s because health providers, healthcare institutions and pharmaceutical companies can’t profit in the same way as banks do. They have to make their money somewhere, and picking out possibly-rich-looking-posh-sounding people like me is an excellent way to do it.

When my husband got his antibiotic prescription, they forced him to take two whole pills of Vicodin. Yep, that stuff that tons of celebrities are addicted to. He said outright that he didn’t want it, but she said he “couldn’t leave” without taking it. When we got home, he was anxious, irritable, nervous and had to go for a walk. At 1am. He took half a dose the next morning and refused to take the rest.

After a few weeks of work, I’m now eligible to receive health insurance as a “benefit” (i.e. not an intrinsic human right) to stop myself from dying. I still have to pay for it though, and the state in which I live (Massachusetts) imposes yearly fines on people who do NOT have health insurance. That’s right – if you don’t pay for health insurance, you will pay even more in fines!

My best practice is to try not to be sick in the first place, or stop myself from getting sicker. I’ve already nipped one persistent cold in the bud, but now I have to face another, thanks to commuters who don’t cover their mouths when coughing, and co-workers who don’t wash their fucking hands after going to the toilet.

I tend to eat what I crave to stave things off (and no that does not include ice cream, unless you want to add to that ball of phlegm in the back of your throat). Things like real fruit ice lollies, orange juice, chocolate-covered pretzels, tomato pasta, spicy Quorn curry and…egg drop soup:

Egg Drop Soup (1-2 servings)

2 eggs


soy sauce


vegetable stock

cornstarch (add gradually to get the consistency you want)

Bring water to a boil, stick the rest in, and KEEP STIRRING the egg for as long as humanly possible until long strings start to develop. It may look like a cyclone farted in the cosmos, but it really is delicious. Keep an eye on it and don’t overcook. The cornstarch should thicken it, and the end result resembles something a bit like chicken and sweetcorn soup.  You can add a bunch of spices, but this is the one my mother made me when I was sick. Great, now I’m homesick (again) as well as actually sick. A-choo.


One thought on “Welcome To America; Just Don’t Get Sick Here.

  1. I stumbled upon this entry at random, but I can identify with the confusion and aggrevation you experienced. I’m 29 and I live in New England too. I don’t know what to make of the state of health care in this country. Costs are unaffordable for most. I don’t have health insurance because I live alone and I would never be able to cover health insurance premiums. I haven’t been to a doctor or dentist in years because I just can’t afford out of pocket costs unless I save for months. I also don’t know where to find a doctor or dentist who would even accept a patient without insurance. I could be walking around right now with all kinds of things wrong with me. But if something were to happen to me, where I get hurt or too sick to treat myself, it’s simply over. I’d be financially ruined and probably part of the growing legions on the street. The only solution seems to be to never need unanticipated care. Never get sick. Should have been born rich. I don’t like people who delibrately take advantage of the systems in place either. But it’s a ruthless, cold, profit-oriented system that is bent on consuming us before consuming itself, like a black hole and many of us in this country feel there is little we can do to change it. All we know is It just isn’t right.

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