Adventures In Constriction

This past Saturday, I woke up at 6am with something lodged in my throat. My instinct was to try to cough it up, which proved difficult when I eventually realised it was my uvula. Something was swollen back there – most likely my throat – which prevented me from swallowing or talking with any ease. Concerned that ‘breathing’ was next on the list, and me an avid breather, I figured I should probably go to the hospital. But how to communicate this idea?

Regular reader of this site knows that I’m in Sydney for the next few months on work. So I wrote a note for my housemate Stephen saying that he shouldn’t be too concerned, but could he drive me to the emergency room? Then, in an act of character contradiction that would rock several pages of a Jonathan Franzen novel, I began tapping on his door in a manner designed to get his attention without actually waking him up.

(This, I am compelled to point out, is the first time in my life I’ve ever asked to be taken to the emergency room. I’m one of those people who will watch as his limbs drop off and resist bothering a doctor about it in case they reattach themselves.)

Stephen leapt into action, and we were soon at the emergency room. The triage nurse, clearly concerned that at 6am on a Saturday morning I was suffering a bad reaction to some illicit substances, asked if I knew where I was. ‘Hospital,’ I mumbled through my John Merrick swelling. ‘Which one?’ she asked. ‘I’m from Melbourne,’ I explained. She seemed satisfied by this, either because it indicated I wouldn’t know the names of hospitals, or because it allowed her to determine which drug I’d been taking.

I changed into the regulation paper napkin and they ran some tests. I tried to be the upbeat, jokey patient that doctors no doubt whisper about to one another in the staff room, but the best joke I could manage was choking on my tongue and dry retching. And they’d heard that one before.

There was some trouble identifying the cause. My last meal had been ten hours earlier, and that’s a long time to wait for an allergic reaction. Even for a teriyaki stir fry that bad. It might have been a flu symptom, but it was the only one I was suffering from.

I helpfully suggested a spider might have crawled into my mouth and bitten me, something I’ve been perpetually, constantly concerned since my childhood when this erroneous fact was imparted to me. The doctor nodded and looked at me in a way that confirmed she would indeed be whispering to her colleagues about me in the staff room.

It was eventually decided that I had some sort of respiratory infection. My throat was beginning to improve, but they kept me in there for seven hours so they could be sure. At about 1:30pm, they handed me a discharge letter, directed me to buy some antihistamines and sent me on my way. ‘Do I have to sign anything?’ I asked. ‘No,’ they said, in a far less collective manner than my wording is suggesting. ‘It’s been taken care of.’

The ‘taken care of’ referred to the Medicare card I’d handed over as they were checking me in. I barely remembered doing it. All I’d had to do was hand over this card and some photo ID for two minutes, and everything that followed was on the house.

It wasn’t just seeing it in action that impressed me. It was seeing it in action after reading the ongoing healthcare debate across the pond. The Pacific, not the Atlantic. (That can be a pond too! Why can’t it?)

A similar thing happened to my friend Tim, who a few weeks ago was hit by a car, suffering a broken shoulder blade and fractured left elbow, with a possible dislocated shoulder. He spent three hours in the hospital, which included being given painkillers, having his blood pressure taken, x-rays, and a sling. (It turns out it’s impossible to set a shoulder blade in plaster, but they were confident it would heal on its own.) The grand total of this visit was $25 for the painkillers. And he’s been told he can reclaim that.

The first time I really understood that healthcare was any different in other parts of the world was when I was a kid and saw a US-based actor giving a talk. He drifted from his career to the American health system, saying that he and his neighbour had a deal that if either of them found the other lying on the floor, they wouldn’t call an ambulance because the crippling debt would be worse than death. And he didn’t sound like he was kidding.

I left the hospital and went back to my place in Bondi. I immediately did was do a search to see how much my visit would have cost if I’d been living in America, with no public health insurance to cover me.

Much of what I read was anecdotal, but it seemed like seven hours of ER care with blood tests thrown in would have cost me in excess of $5000. And that’s a very conservative estimate.

I don’t want to get into all the arguments about the rights of the individual vs a government-funded healthcare… actually, that’s a lie. I do want to get into those, but I’m not going to. This isn’t what this is about.

I know that everybody has a different concept of liberty, and that some feel government-run healthcare infringes upon it. In both an idealistic sense and, after Saturday, a very practical, first-hand sense, I do not feel as if my liberty has been infringed upon. In fact, this system fortifies my sense of liberty.

And not to mention that having public health care is one of the reasons we’re the wealthiest nation on Earth. No, really, I’m not going mention it.

A big thank you to Stephen and to the staff of the Prince of Wales Emergency Room, all of whom were incredibly professional, personable, and, for some reason, British. (I picked accents from Scotland, Ireland, Liverpool, from at least a dozen nurses and doctors. This isn’t a problem, I’m just concerned for the dazed patient who wakes up to overwhelming evidence that their all-night bender somehow landed them in the UK.) It’s nice knowing that both my country and the people around me have my back. Or my throat. Or the back of my throat. You know what I mean.

6 thoughts on “Adventures In Constriction

  1. I’ve had mixed experiences in ER settings. One involved being told I had a choice between taking a handful of sedatives or being strapped to the bed. I took the sedatives but wished I’d taken the restraints – I spent three days wavering between being completely unconscious to being conscious enough to vomit everywhere and then pass out again. Not pleasant.

    In December when I broke my ankle, I was in and out of emergency in 2 hours. X-rays, plaster, moonboot, crutches – didn’t cost a thing. I spent a small fortune at the physio, but that’s because I was particular about getting full use of my foot back asap.

    Three cheers for public health care!!

  2. Right on! I’m still dazed by the reaction of Americans who believe, somehow, a national healthcare system is a violation of their civil rights. One American gent told me it was “communism” and not in a good way! Glad to hear your much better!

  3. Hi Lee,
    I’m glad you seem to be ok and that I suppose you learnt something from the experience. 😉 I have one friendly piece of advice (given my current change of occupation to medical), please see an Immunologist to make sure there’s nothing else going on. Angioedema (things swelling up – esp in the throat) can also mean other things. Better just to make sure…
    IM me if you want more info! Good luck!


  4. As someone who has now lived in Europe for about five years, I can say that the Australian healthcare system is excellent, but not without its flaws. Between GPs, psychiatrists, specialist surgeons and dentists I used to spend many hundreds of dollars a year on healthcare living in Melbourne. In the UK, the most I’ve paid for anything has been seven quid for a prescription (which, when I was unemployed, was free). It might not seem like much, but for a lot of people those extra expenses are what prevent people from getting little things ‘checked out’ that would eventually turn into big dangerous things.

    Perhaps more worringly, for Australia, is how easily healthcare could be turned into an Obamacare-like stratified system. Medicare is in some sectors is already a two-tiered system – it’s only one conservative reform away from being a user-pays, private-enterprise driven healthcare market with a government funded safety net. The NHS reforms that have gotten so many people angry here in the UK mostly revolve around the removal of regulations that prevent private companies competeing with (and potentially replacing) public providers – such regulations do not exists in Australia (or do exist in a watered-down form).

    It’s lucky that the Australian economy has done so well (comparatively) during the global crisis. An relatively small, austerity driven ‘Healthcare Reform Act’ could gut Medicare overnight. You might think such an act would never pass, but we all thought the same thing about the NHS reforms – and Medicare doesn’t have the cultural pride cache that the NHS did.

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