As of New Year’s Day, I officially have health insurance. It has been the anti-climactic end of one year of fighting with my local health exchange website and numerous tearful phone calls in which I essentially begged DC Health Link to just take my damn money.
But it also ends a seven year stretch when I didn’t have health insurance, and despite my joy at being able to go to the doctor once again, I can’t help but look back fondly on the ingenuity, force of will, and endless patience of a local village doctor that kept me going for over half a decade.
I’ve always said that, when it came to not having health insurance, I was extremely lucky. I was an ideal person to dodge insurance premiums—I’m not prone to more than the occasional sore throat and cluster headache, both of which I’ve learned are treatable with Baked Ruffles, Powerade, and pho.
But while not having health insurance didn’t feel that strange as a college student, the older I got, the more I realized that not being covered was rolling the dice on a daily basis. Who knew when I’d suffer a fall and hurt my wrist, or take a chunk out of my finger while cooking, or otherwise end up in a situation where a trip to the hospital was inevitable?
Amazingly, for the bulk of my seven years without insurance, the hospital was almost entirely avoidable. It takes a lot of denial and willingness to deal with discomfort to stay away, but few things will inspire such stoic behavior as straight up not having any other choice. Looking back, there were times I probably should have sought medical attention. But time and time again, my half-assed solutions and repeatedly saying, “I’m fine. I’m sure it’s fine,” worked.
A couple years ago, I poured boiling water all over my own hand while trying (and spectacularly failing) to make coffee. I spent 48 hours with my hand on ice, even sleeping with it on an ice pack. It hurt like hell, but I grit my teeth and settled in with a bag of peas wrapped up in a hand towel.
After the first two days, the skin toughened and eventually started peeling off in big sheets. Somehow, and I have no actual clue how, I didn’t end up with any scars. It’s as if my hand was never one huge blister-and-leather collage that I treated with only frozen veggies and old Honeybaked Ham cold packs.
Even though I avoided the hospital at (nearly) all cost, I wasn’t totally without medical assistance. For the first few years of my insurance-less-ness, I had an ace-in-the-hole: a local clinic where the doctor, Jane, was willing to see me on very little notice when I’d let something go for so long I was convinced I was dying.
The last time I saw Jane before she retired and I moved to another state, she burst into the room with a wide smile. I’d called an hour earlier with an urgent request to see her.
“Bridey! I was so happy to see your name on the schedule,” she said. “What seems to be the problem?”
“I have scabies,” I said. I didn’t, as it turned out, but the fact that Jane didn’t miss a beat when I said that says a great deal about our dynamic.
Jane saw me through all my most pressing health crises. The time I got my first UTI. The time I learned that I’m allergic to both histamine and a very common ingredient in antihistamines. The time earwax was completely blocking my ears and I couldn’t hear unless I pulled down my earlobe. She had listened patiently when during every single visit I explained that I was fairly sure all my ailments were climate change related, because the environment is in such a state of flux that, really, my body could be reacting by developing eczema.
Jane was the kind of doctor you want when you don’t have health insurance, and not just because an office visit cost just $60 if you paid same-day and she was willing to fork over samples if she needed to prescribe medicines I couldn’t really afford. Jane was patient and warm, but she wasn’t one to overreact. Even if she didn’t run any tests or give me any medicine, I left the clinic feeling calm and knowing that if something was truly wrong, Jane wouldn’t have let me walk out the door without treatment.
This was nothing like my hospital experience without insurance. Shortly after I moved in with my then-boyfriend-now-husband, I decided to go to the OB/GYN to get on birth control. I had been on birth control before, and I assumed an office visit couldn’t be that much. The appointment lasted maybe twenty minutes, they ran some tests, and I walked out with a one-year prescription for the Pill.
A couple weeks later a bill for over $1,000 showed up at our door. I immediately applied for financial assistance and, since I had $30 to my name at the time, I was approved for full assistance at the hospital for one calendar year. Relieved to be rid of the $1k bill that I couldn’t afford, I didn’t touch the assistance for months. But for years, I’ve suffered from cluster headaches that lay me out for a day at a time. When a series of headaches laid me low more often than usual, I decided maybe I should tap into that assistance and get a final answer as to why it kept happening.
I spent four hours calling doctors and specialists, calling the referral office at the hospital, and eventually crying to secretaries about how much pain I was in. The answer I kept getting was simple: “We’re not taking clients without insurance.”
The assistance through the hospital counted for nothing, and no one would let me make an appointment. I’ve never felt as helpless as I did that day. That was three years ago, and I have not tried to make a doctor’s appointment since.
But with the new year, all that will be behind me. No more ignoring possible health problems. No more workarounds. No more being told that, without insurance, I can’t be seen. In the eyes of the medical world, I will once again be a person deserving of medical treatment. After seven years of talking myself out of going to the doctor, that option will suddenly be available again. I just hope I can find a doctor who knows their way around climate change related ailments.