I don't have health insurance. I haven't had since graduating college in 2005. This has weighed heavily upon me these last two years or so because if there's someone who needs health insurance, it's me. So, obviously, I'm one who can't get it. With my colorful history of periorbital cellulitis, scoliosis, congenital birth defect, asthma, and abnormal pap smears galore, I am not an insurance company's ideal candidate.
So I'd been dreading the time when I'd need to go to the emergency room. Free clinics are one thing, but an emergency room full of uninsured poor people such as myself? Would one even want to gaze upon such a place?
The answer is no - one certainly would fucking not.
So on Thursday when the chest pain that had been plaguing me for two days started veering from slightly uncomfortable to outright painful as hell, I drove myself to the LAC + USC emergency room with a general sense of fear. I'd never been to an emergency room without health insurance before. Would I qualify for the Ability to Pay program? Would they charge me full price anyway? As it happened, money ended up being the least of my problems. I did qualify for their program, but the real price of going ended up being the care I received. Or rather, the lack of care I received. Normally, when one goes to the emergency room, one is seen immediately if one of three things is happening: 1) bleeding, 2) trouble breathing, and 3) chest pain. Never has it happened that I've had to wait more than one hour to be seen in an emergency room, because usually I've gone for an asthma attack and am attended to immediately. But there I was, feeling like I was having something akin to a heart attack or like an invisible knife was repeatedly stabbing me in the chest, yet I was more or less ignored for the next 15 hours.
Let me repeat that: FIFTEEN HOURS. I was there at 3:30pm Thursday and wasn't seen until 6:30am Friday. I spent the first four hours I was there sobbing (SOBBING) because that's how awful the pain was. Every time I'd be able to calm myself down again, I'd get another spasm in my chest and I'd begin crying uncontrollably again. Partly out of frustration. I don't know if there's anything more horrible than being in terrible pain, telling a nurse that your pain is the worst possible pain you can imagine being in, and having her say, "Okay. Please move away from this door, miss." It was surreal. The feeling was akin to being in one of those dreams wherein no matter how fast you run, you never get anywhere.
Also, the emergency room was disgusting. Trash everywhere, grime everywhere, homeless people sleeping on the floor, homeless people yelling about imagined slights and horrors, a bathroom littered with all manner of waste, etc.
I was there for so long that the only reason my pain subsided was because it took it's natural course. In addition to the chest pain, I must have had a fever of 104. I say "must have" because I don't know. Usually they take your vitals every few hours to monitor you - that way, its clear if you need immediate attention. They didn't even take my vitals when I walked in - I assume because they didn't want to know if I needed immediate attention, because there wasn't anywhere to put me if I did. I only know I must have had a fever because I couldn't think or see straight and was sweating and shaking uncontrollably. That emergency room was less an emergency room than a holding pen to keep us out of sight. We would go for hours without seeing a single nurse. I mean that literally. There were no nurses in sight - they were all in another room somewhere. It was just us, the sick, sitting in the lobby, hoping that a nurse would poke his or her head out the door and call one of us. I think my body actually went into shock after the fifth hour. For one hour, I was befriended against my will by a young guy who wouldn't stop staring at me and touching my arm and who said: "At this point, I could have turned enough tricks to pay for the meds myself." That's right. Tricks. Turned them. Turned some tricks.
I think the only reason I survived the night without serious consequences was because a) I happened to have Advil in my purse and although it didn't help with the pain, it at least brought my fever down and b) a stranger kept giving me bottles of water and juice. Not a nurse. Not a doctor. Just some guy who was there waiting for his rehab partner (like a sponsor). He had an entire shopping bag of water bottles and juice bottles and he was kind enough to share with me over the course of the night. The only money I had on me was 90 cents, which ended up being enough to buy a Chex Mix snack bag from the vending machine at 3am. I couldn't the leave the room because I was afraid they would call my name and move on to the next person, forcing me to start at square one. And my cell phone didn't work, so I couldn't call anyone to come help me and there were no pay phones in the room. (When I finally got out, I had a message waiting for me from Danforth, wondering where the hell I was. When I finally spoke with him, he was upset that I hadn't asked him to take me in the first place. In retrospect, I obviously should have, but I really had no idea what I was getting into at that point. Then, once I was there, it was too late. I was completely cut off.)
And you know what it turned out I had? Bronchitis. What a joke. I don't know what was ACTUALLY going wrong in my chest, but I am having a really hard time swallowing the idea that it was bronchitis. I've HAD bronchitis at least seven times in the last 8 years. The year I had pneumonia, I had bronchitis four times afterward. Every time I got a cold after that, it turned into bronchitis. Yet never in my life has bronchitis made me feel like I might also be having a heart attack.
Part of the reason I doubt it was bronchitis is because the staff of that hospital was ridiculously apathetic to what was going on and frankly, I don't trust them to have diagnosed me accurately. I understand how hard it must be to work there, to be witness to such constant pain and to have to participate in such a flawed system that you can't really do anything about, but their attitudes were unacceptable.
I'd been handed off to a different nurse every 20 minutes, none of whom were communicating to one another what they'd done with me. I had to correct EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM about what medication I take for my asthma, because the nurse who checked me in initially had gotten it wrong and not a single person I corrected over the course of those fifteen hours went to the trouble to correct it on my chart for the next nurse. The nurse who did check me in at the start, when I told her I was experiencing chest pain (I was crying and having trouble speaking already) had the nerve to look at me, sigh in an annoyed way, and say, "Now is that REALLY accurate? You're only 25." I've never wanted to slap someone across the face so much in my entire life. And, in all seriousness, I HAVE slapped a nurse in the face once, after my spinal fusion surgery when I was 13. But I just gritted my teeth and said through choked sobs, "Yes, I'm having chest pain." What did she THINK was happening? I was lying? I was actually just there with a bad cold and I was trying to put one over on her and get a free ride? A free ride that came at the expense of 15 hours of my life and no sleep, when I could have ... what? Taken some Ny-Quil instead? Did she really think that's what was happening? I'd already been sitting there crying for the last 10 minutes while I waited for one of the nurses to check me in. And what were they doing while I waited that 10 minutes, crying and thinking I might die? They were chatting. Y'know ... just shooting the shit.
When I was FINALLY seen at 6:30am, a nurse who'd answered a question of mine at 3:30am peeked in on my room (which was little more than a table and curtain - no walls, no door, it was like sitting in a classroom that was serving as a makeshift hospital) and said, "Oh, it's you. I thought you were here yesterday." To which I snapped back, "I HAVE BEEN HERE SINCE YESTERDAY." In response, he chuckled and said, "Yeah, I guess that's true." Yeah, yuk it up, asshole. When I've been waiting around in the equivalent of a Greyhound bus depot with the saddest rejects of humanity, crying on and off for the last 15 hours, the last thing I want is for any of the nurses to have a goddamn sense of humor about it.
I have no real way to end this bitter, bitter entry except to say that eventually I was able to leave the emergency room at 10am Friday morning. At which point I waited for another hour in their pharmacy for my prescription. So for all my saying it took 15 hours to be seen, I was there a total of 19 hours. NINETEEN.
Please vote for a presidential candidate who supports healthcare reform. Please God, do this.
Also, never, ever go to the LAC + USC hospital. I hope that place burns to the ground. My hatred for it will live longer than I do. When I am dead, my hatred for that building will rise, become its own corporeal being, and rain down acid on its very foundation for the next thousand years, even after it has already been destroyed. It will become a smoking pit of earth with a constant cloud of acid rain over it that generations to come will warn their children about. My hatred will become its own supernatural phenomena that will frighten all Los Angeles residents until the year 3008, such is my hatred for that horrible stinking pit of despair. When I left, the nurse told me to return if I was experiencing shortness of breath. And I said, "Will I have to wait another 15 hours?" She said, "Probably." And I said, "I'd rather die."
Literally, I would not return to that emergency room if my life depended on it. I would sooner go bankrupt by going to an emergency room that doesn't offer any Ability to Pay program. I'm fucking serious. Fucking fuck that fucking awful place.
Jesus, I'm tired now.