Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Adventures of an Italanglimerican Asthmatic

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I do not, and may never, posses the superb, succinct verbal-dagger artistry of the most recent object of my swooning fandom, but I'll self-consciously throw myself into the murky depths of Michael Moore bandwagonism nonetheless.

It's very difficult to ascertain exactly what the arguments against Moore's new film, Sicko, are. The summation of the preceding "journalistic report" to the instantly classic, 10-minute Moore diatribe on CNN was essentially, "Michael Moore is right. Our health care system sucks. Here is some stuff that may or may not look kind of sort of sketchy if you squint your eyes really hard and spin around three times while holding your nose and downing a fifth of vodka. In sum: he's right." But I think--I think--the vapors that Big Pharmacy are desperately grasping at can be summarized in the jerkoff Hannity & Combs piece that my husband sent to me at work this afternoon:

1. Americans have the shortest waiting periods EVER!
2. Nations with socialized medicine pay so many taxes that working people have live in shacks and eat dirt and sing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" while drug addicts and gypsies eat caviar and take money baths!
3. The cases Michael Moore features in his movie are isolated and never actually happen in real life!

A personal-experience rebuttal might not be the most statistically effective, but dammit, I know I'm right, so here it is.

A signifiant chunk of the four and a half years I spent living as an adult in my home country are wacky, free-wheelin', students-with-no-health-insurance anecdotes. It was all very fun and Kerouacian until the end of my first semester at college, when I thought I was going to die because I have asthma and couldn't come up with the $250 I needed for that month's medication. My (goddess of a) doctor managed to amass a grocery bag full of drug company samples--tiny little inhalers worth about ten good squirts each--to hold me over until the next semester's worth of academic scholarship money came through. Had it not been for her generous resourcefulness, I would have been in serious trouble, and what followed were four long years of similarly touch-and-go, cloak-and-dagger rain dancing to keep me from suffocating in my sleep. And trust me--it was very, very far from isolated.

When I arrived in England, ignorant of just about every facet of English life and receiving little help from my similarly befuddled boyfriend (who was still a fairly recent arrival from Italy), I lost many, many hours of sleep panicking about what was going to happen to me when my medication ran out. I'd heard vague rumors about the NHS, but I wasn't married yet, and only in England on a temporary six-month visa that did not, as far as I knew, entitle me to any citizenship rights, whatever they might have been. I wasn't allowed to work. I had virtually nothing. All I knew was that everything seemed to be about a hundred times more expensive and, if that also applied to medication, I was well and truly fucked.

After putting off the inevitable until the last minute, I braced myself and registered at our local National Health Service clinic. Name. Nationality. Contact phone number. Known medical issues. "Asthma", I wrote shakily, feeling like I was filing for bankruptcy.

"Let's set up an assessment," the receptionist chirped. "Say, tomorrow at 11?" (Total waiting time--approximately 21 hours.)

I couldn't bring myself to ask her how much it was going to cost.

The next day, I submitted to the usual peak flow tests and symptom-trigger questions, the cash register in my mind chinging madly with every word that came out of the doctor's mouth. He handed me a prescription containing the Anglicanized versions of all the necessary preventative and rescue meds, and I made my way to reception with my credit card clutched in a sweaty palm, praying that they accepted credit cards that may or may not have been maxed out.

The receptionist looked surprised to see me standing there. "Do you need another appointment?"

"No, I need to...pay," I choked.

She looked utterly confounded. "Pay for what?"

"The doctor?"

"Pardon?"

"What?"

And it went on like that for a couple of passes until she was able to identify my accent.

"Oh, you're American, aren't you?" Bless her. Trying so hard not to laugh.

And, I must say...five years on, and I'm a full-fledged legal immigrant with a big-girl job and an easy familiarity with the NHS system, and I still can't help but feel like a cat burglar every time I skip out of there without greasing any palms.

I learned about prescription costs in a similarly embarrassing fashion. I was moaning to a patron of the pub I worked in, and I said, "I have these prescriptions to get filled, but I'm broke! I'm going to die or something!"

"No, it's not so bad. They'll cost £6."

"What? Why? Do you have asthma too?"

"All prescriptions cost £6, no matter what it's for." Unspoken subtext: "Oh, you're American, aren't you?"

As I struggled maintain nonchalance while the Hallelujah Chorus resounded in my head, I went home and slept the first night of beautiful sleep I'd had in months. And I kissed the sky and did bell kicks all the way there. I mean seriously, you can't imagine. After four years of life/death constantly in the back of my mind,it was better than winning the lottery.

These days, my monthly NHS contribution is automatically deducted from my paycheck. If it was so astronomical that it actually affected me in some way, I'd be able to tell you exactly how much it is, but it doesn't, so I can't. If I'm drowning in taxes, I guess my nice life and I are just too busy enjoying unobstructed breathing to notice.

I'm aware that the system isn't perfect. I'm aware of the issues, and there certainly are issues. But when you're young and sick and frightened--terrified--and you don't know where your next breath is coming from, and then, for the first time in your life, you're told that everything is going to be okay, and then it IS okay, and you weep with relief...your punching fist tends to want to penetrate your computer screen and shove itself down Sean Hannity's knobby little throat.

And, today, an Australian puppy is spared.

1 comment:

Smonson said...

The puppy's name was Maxine and she really appreciates it.

Last year I was using a new synthetic drug that wasn't covered by the public subsidies and it was costing me $150 a month. But now the list has been updated and I get it for $4. Ahh, it's a wonderful thing, civilization.