Oliver was a rambunctious orange tabby for such a small little fellow. His long, thick hair puffed about his face, framing the most gorgeous cobalt eyes you've ever seen. He was so harried by fleas when my son brought him home we feared he wouldn't last. Bath after bath, a little food, and a nice warm towel, and he quickly became our little water baby. Rare was the day when I wasn't visited while in a nice hot soak by our playful scuba diving kitten.
But a kitten he certainly was, and a gregarious one at that. As his diminutive body slowly grew, he had become the most feared animal in the household, or the most annoying, depending on your point of view. Feet, legs, clothes, anything that dared move in view of his watchful, patient survey risked the wrath of that damn cat.
And so began my wife's short war with Oliver. The battles lasted only seconds, but left deep scars. This kitten's play was anything but. He was learning to hunt, but she was learning there were new limits to what her body could take.
Who dies of cat scratches? Americans do, and one American almost did.
We, like most Americans waited until later in life to have children. What is the result of teenage sport for some, was for us a choice, and a choice that would change her health forever. I still remember the day my son was born as one of the best, and one of the worst in my life. It was the day when I first realized the cold reality that my life would and must continue without the support of my wife. It was the day that I spent with her hand gripped in mine at the side of a hospital bed hoping that she would survive the night. The experience only perforated by being the first person in the world to hold and feed my 5 lb 9 oz son.
A day or a million minutes later, the staff brought him to her room inside a sterile chamber to see his ailing mother. When a nurse lifted him out of his lexan womb and handed our joy to my wife's waiting arms I cried. When I say I cried, it cannot express the emotional weight of that moment. I could not breathe, and my tears welled up of their own accord. This had been orchestrated as more of a goodbye than a hello, and it crushed me.
Peripartum Cardiomyopathy is a fancy way of saying Toxemia, which is a fancy way of saying that her pregnancy was a toxic one. As with most women, her heart had expanded on becoming a mother, but in her case it was fact more than poetry. It indeed had strained the muscle rather than the capacity to failing proportions. By the might of her own will and a mass of medical expertise she survived. And six days later, four days after my son came home from the hospital, so did my wife.
We went about life in the only way we could as we had no health insurance. By the grace of the State, we saw the right doctors, got the right medicine, if only for a time. 10 years would pass, and we'd fight for the prescriptions we could. The cash payer nightmare was ours, along with the stigma of poverty.
And then came that cat. He was a simple, happy little fellow. He meant no harm, and was too damned cute to cast off. His needs were simple, and for a tragically lonely autistic little boy, he was an important lifeline to socialization and self-compassion. And when the hunter fought the good fight against the mighty pant-leg, my wife accepted the necessity but not the behavior.
Spray bottles were cached on desks, in nooks, and nightstands, but for a water-kitten they didn't mean much. She might as well have shouted, "Play!" But sharp little claws at the tips of energized assertion didn't know the damage that they would do.
The wounds began to seep. They failed to heal. There was no money and too much pride. What began as pricks had slowly become maws of infections on her legs and stomach. A cat, just a cat, would bring us to the brink and push us off.
In that no man's land between medicare and wealth we could no longer afford real doctors. A Nurse Practitioner was the best we could do, and she was good enough. I've no complaints. She was honest, sincere, and forthright enough to know she didn't know enough about what was going on. She prescribed a sojourn through the hospital. Her supervising physician refused responsibility.
Sure, my wife had been having trouble breathing, but that was nothing new. She'd known she was asthmatic ever since her time in the Army. It was simply that it was getting worse. And yes, she'd gained weight, but not horribly so. Her legs were puffy and her feet simply hurt, but age was age. What else would one expect from the middle of life but the beginning of death?
To the ER we went but I can't say we rushed. It was debt we were talking about here, and we already had too much. Work in construction had turned into the crumbs left to ash in the ovens of the economy. We could barely afford to eat, much less repair the car, the truck or ourselves, and while debt had never bothered me, it bothered her immensely. She was born of the South with a will formed by genteel neighbors and aunts who saw antebellum debutantes when they caught their reflections. The Army had tempered that will into a driving force that I still, to this day, both admire and detest.
We bought a Big Gulp lemonade, her favorite, and then I held the door for her. The waiting room was quiet, but the staff swift in their trade. I held her with my eyes as I explained again and again that we had no insurance. The techs understood, and the nurses were efficient, but the doctor both bitter and brusque. It was what I had expected. I knew these people enough. I had worked for them time and time again. Extravagant in their grand homes with granite countertops and maple cabinets; playrooms for their two children that my whole family would have considered a palace. Even the good ones with Obama bumper stickers and an Iphone for every person didn't understand their own opulence.
Their grudging service was no surprise to me. They were paid out of my pocket, even if the hospital deigned to be generous and charitable. And I couldn't really blame them. What they had wanted, what they had worked for, sacrificed for, and sold their souls for had become grey. Survival was now the rule. Extraction of means in profit was the quota. What mad logic had become the rule of their life. Bitterness was the best I could hope for.
In hours she was admitted. In a day 10 lbs. gone. In a week 40. 58 lbs. later her body had finally been shored against the fluid that had secreted its way into every cell of her body. And she could breathe. For the first time in two years she could breathe. With oxygen wisped through a canula she could breathe! And for the first time in 10 years she could finally sleep!
It took them only as long as it did for them to hear the word veteran that they asked to transfer us to the VA. Again my wife balked. Newsweek covers and Associated Press photos stayed the seed of guilt within her. She had served, but had never considered herself a soldier. The snap in her pencil skirt, and polished brass buttons only ever saw the SHAPE base in Belgium, and the Georgian education of the Signal Corps. Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya, El Salvador, and Grenada, and Vietnam, yes Vietnam! Those were soldiers!
What did one woman do in a nest of modems? Enough. She'd done enough.
As the ambulance approached the 1950's brick and mortar, I wasn't with her. Medical transport had picked her up and strapped her in. The tune of American-made diesel had carried her there. The glow of the bright red, "VA" carried as the metaphorical lighthouse in her eyes as she approached. We didn't know if this would be the rocks or the shore. And it was frightening.
We'd heard stories. We'd read the news, and felt the cultural weight of 40 years worth of "Military Doctors," red tape and rapier budget cuts. The image was in no way deserved.
A male nurse the likes of which I have never seen smiled at me as I approached her room in MICU. He had a smile, confidence and demeanor that showed a burning passion to care. I have lived in this country my entire life and I have never seen that which I saw that day. This was a family and we were members. We were welcome. We were home. Someone, somewhere cared.
In the days that would come we saw what wait times were like. In the months that followed we saw what preventative care meant. For 8 million Americans we had finally done something right. For $5,500 per patient we saw the best health care of our lives. And we saw the model for America to follow.
In this one building in the heart of downtown Oklahoma City I saw the realities of what health care could be. I saw what it must be like in France, the UK, Finland, Switzerland, Spain, and even Greece. Socialist, whatever! I don't care what the hell you call it. If that's how socialists treat their brothers, their sisters, their fellow citizens, their children you can count me in!
My wife is alive, though she remains on the heart transplant list. I credit the VA for saving her life, but more importantly saving her health. There is indeed a difference. We in America, in our race for profit, have often forgotten the fragile relationship between doctor and patient. For once I think we have a model to help us all understand.
Tue Jan 03, 2012 at 8:47 PM PT: Thanks to all of you who have commented, read this and passed it on, or took it upon yourself to help reshape the debate on single payer health care. Our story is one of many out there, and I hesitated to post it because there are so many, but each of you in your support have shown me again that the fight starts with each story. And every story is important.
While my wife and I don't like to draw attention to ourselves, because of stigma, because of pride, because of the shame of what we couldn't or wouldn't do, all of you have helped me realize that our story can make a difference. Thank you all. Thank you very much.
Tue Jan 03, 2012 at 10:02 PM PT: My wife reminded me that she also wanted to thank everyone who've been so supportive. We have filed a claim and are now waiting for adjudication. As they diagnosed her asthma while she was in the service we may also be eligible for a service connected disability.