Strong Medicine

Sharmila - New York, New York
Entered on June 18, 2008

Strong medicine

When you come as a foreigner to pursue a graduate degree in the United States, there are two pieces of advice you are handed minutes after leaving the Immigration Desk. Keep on the right side of the law and never, ever get sick in this country – it’s much too painful on your pockets.

I followed the first piece of advice religiously but, try as I would, I never could quite adhere to the second.

The rules say that someone coming from the hot and steaming tropics, teeming with a smorgasbord of creepy crawlies, to the dried and disinfected New World should not fall ill. It violates all established Laws of Nature. But I did. With monotonous regularity. And in the process got an up close and personal view of the American medical health system.

It began with an innocuous eye infection. I ignored it, at first. Used as they were to Indian summers, my eyes were probably still adjusting to the profusion of colors that is Fall in the United States. But as the days passed and the white of my eye veered more towards the red, stronger measures were called for.

I headed for the physician I had signed up for with my health insurance provider. The nurse on duty at the clinic resolutely ignored the bloodshot oculus and proceeded instead to monitor my pulse. Needless to say, it was racing. Body temperature and blood pressure came next. The little formalities between us completed, she retreated. To be replaced by the resident physician. He gave my eye an once-over, spoke chattily about allergies and the havoc they wreak on unsuspecting souls, and prescribed some medication. Ignorant of the way of all health care in the USA, I enquired if he was an eye doctor. Not so, he assured me. To maneuver myself into the highway of the specialist, I had to first traverse the bylanes of the primary health care provider. Only should the condition get worse would a detour be considered.

A week passed and I was back – my eye no better than before. Once again my pulse was checked, temperature taken and blood pressure noted. All this while, my eye grew redder and redder. The doctor came and gave his diagnosis. This time around, primary health care felt I was ready to graduate and enlist the services of an ophthalmologist.

The waiting room at the eye clinic was crowded – with patients, stacks of old periodicals and a television set that revealed how Jack calmed down his hyperactive bladder and how Jill taught her immune system to take a joke. All this I saw with my good eye, its injured partner having shut shop for repairs and renovation.

The ophthalmologist came, examined – and questioned! The queries ranged from personal habits and past medical conditions to whether there was a history of blindness in my family. (How nice! Just what you’d like to be asked while nursing a bad eye!) We didn’t actually discuss whether or not my grandfather had diabetes but we were close.

The eye recovered and winter set in. It was all-quiet on the viral front as temperatures dropped to sub-zero levels. Like all well-brought up germs, the pathogens had gone into hibernation.

Spring came and as the flowers bloomed, so did the viruses. The time has come, the wrecking crew said, to do unspeakable things. And my immune system, still tottering after the harsh winter, was no match for the onslaught.

Dizzy spells, light-headedness and palpitations saw me being rushed to the Emergency Room. The world seemed to be positioned at a crazy angle. I tried to right it, only to hear an officious voice demand, “What kind of insurance do you have?”

Followed tests and more tests. As the culprit turned out to be a hyperactive thyroid gland, I was referred to an endocrinologist. The specialist delved deep into my past and dug out every medical detail, however insignificant. And then went back to the future to predict likely side effects of the prescribed medication. With little sketches, he proceeded to keep me totally, and I mean totally, informed. I came to know parts of my anatomy I hadn’t known existed and, more important, all that could possibly go wrong with them. My heart beat, already an upbeat 135, scaled new heights. My palms became sweaty. There was a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach.

But…I had been kept fully informed.

True, information is the currency of the New Millennium but there are times when a little thriftiness would not go amiss.

With the viruses at bay, it was time for the sharks, a.k.a. the medical bills, to move in for the kill. Emergency care, lab work, radiology – I was not permitted to forget the contribution of a single cog, however minor, in the great American health care wheel.

The bills continue to pour in. But there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of impending insolvency. The pathogens trouble me no more, their puny little efforts no match for the superior stunning power of Health Care costs in the USA.