“Yeah, you’re going to need to go to the emergency room with that.”
In a healthcare drop-in center in Brooklyn, I’m paying a man in a white coat $130 to prod my puffy red hand.
I last set foot in an A&E when I swallowed a piece of Lego, aged three. An emergency room, though? It has that “let’s not fuck about with unnecessary words” sense of American urgency to it. An emergency room is where you go when you’ve been shot seven times in the spleen. It’s where humans reduced to bloody slabs of gristle are careered about on trollies, and doctors need amounts of things, “stat.”
It started with a mosquito. For unknown reasons, a small bite on my finger ballooned and left me with a buoyant ham where my left hand used to be. Despite having been told by a dead-eyed pharmacist, “It’s fine. Take Benadryl”, there was no way (as a formidable hypochondriac) I wasn’t going to get it checked out.
My sister lives in New York, so I’ve spent a lot of time in the States, visiting her. But this is my first time navigating my way through the USA’s Kafkaesque healthcare system. First comes the paperwork, a War And Peace-thick pile of it, on which I write my name so many times that the words “Eleanor” and “Margolis” become hilariously absurd. Good thing I’m right-handed. I’ve been an American patient for fifteen minutes and I’m already starting to sweat. I bought health insurance at home, but I’m convinced that the company will play dirty; trying every trick in their sputum-dripping book not to cover me. While my hand is getting bigger and redder right before my eyes, I envisage a bill for a mighty stack of dollars. This is met with a peel of laughter by my insurance company, because I forgot to specify on their forms that I have one tit bigger than the other. “I’m sorry,” they’ll say, “We only cover the evenly-breasted. Enjoy prison.”
As the US government shutdown draws to some kind of close, maybe, I find myself lost within the system that started the whole thing.
I’m in a hospital bed, on an antibiotic drip. Some kick-ass painkillers have started to take effect, and I feel like human cheese on toast. I’m sharing my room with an elderly Hispanic lady called Carmen. Carmen is motherly and flatulent. Worried that I might catch a chill, she covers me in a blanket, then retreats behind her curtain and loudly farts.
My attempts to get to sleep are intermittently interrupted by the nearby calls of a nurse with a thick Brooklyn accent.
“Mary!” she says, again and again. I hazard a guess at Mary being a difficult patient.
Day two. I’m woken by a man’s voice.
Medicated and soporific, I murmur something.
“Uh,” I say, perhaps.
The owner of the voice draws back my curtain and, to my drowsy horror, I’m met not by one person, but a crowd. I’m sprawled out in a star shape and half my face is coated in dried-up saliva. The man (a doctor) has brought along an eager troupe of young med students, to ogle my freak hand. A few pretty blonde girls in white coats jot down notes as the doctor points to bits of me and says sciencey things. Blood rushes to my cheeks.
“I am not a monster!” I want to say.
The doctor ushers the students away, and I go back to sleep. I’m next woken by the Food Bringer.
“Breakfast,” she says as she drops down a tray containing something that might be egg. I pick at whatever it is and endure a rush of overwhelming sadness. I can’t clear my mind of the fact that I’m in a place where a lot of people come to die. In another room, someone is hacking up a lung. Unable to concentrate on even the trashiest of American TV, I spend what seems like an hour poking holes in a polystyrene cup with a pencil.
“Mary, don’t touch that!”
My brother-in-law arrives with coffee. Having just been doped up with more painkillers, I gaze blankly at the ceiling while he speaks gibberish over the phone to my insurance company. Kind and attentive as the hospital staff may be, it’s hard to appreciate that you’re recovering when you have that constant, underlying fear of a giant bill.
“I know you’re in there, Mary!”
Carmen is arguing with a nurse in Spanish. I make out the words “Medicare” and “Medicaid” – America’s vestiges of socialized healthcare. Poor Carmen. I hope she’s covered.
Somewhere nearby, I can hear a nurse talking about the government shutdown.
“They just have to have their Obamacare,” she says, her words oozing contempt.
I begin to wonder how the Republicans have managed to convince even those in the very midst of a system that punishes the poor, that the slightest implementation of state-funded healthcare is an evil, communist conspiracy.
Day three. A good-natured Polish nurse has just hooked me up to a drip and given me an injection of blood-thinner in the stomach. Carmen is leaving.
“Get better, darling,” she says, “And remember – if you need anything – money talks.”
She chuckles and exits my life. With her final words to me, Carmen may have been joking–but she’s neatly summed up the bare-faced callousness of the American healthcare system. This isn’t a hospital; it’s the Wild West. As a foreigner with travel insurance, I’m lucky enough to observe American healthcare from a safe distance. But to someone fully enmeshed, like Carmen, Obamacare is a tiny drop in the murkiest of quagmires.
Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose column "Lez Miserable" appears weekly on the New Statesman website. She tweets @eleanormargolis.