When Barack Obama was first elected president it was with a surge of support from liberal supporters. Advocates for everything from free speech, peace movements, closure of Guantanamo Bay prison, and restoration of civil rights removed during the “War on Terror” expected to see large changes.
I have lived long enough to see how few electoral promises get brought to fruition. My expectations were not very high. As the focus of president Obama turned to the passage of some sort of health care reform, I watched as many of the most progressive features of the Affordable Care Act were removed or crippled in their ability to really provide affordable care for the breadth of the American people. In the end at least a bill was passed and put in place.
This bill as passed the congress was meant to benefit people like myself and my spouse. Most of our lives we have been self-employed and fall into that category of the “working poor”. When our kids were at home we qualified for subsidized medical assistance. As our children left the nest we found ourselves making too much income to qualify for health care assistance, and at our age (approaching sixty) and with some underlying pre-existing conditions, unable to afford or be approved by any insurance company.
After several years without any health insurance and thankfully only minor health problems we looked forward to the arrival of comprehensive health coverage through the Affordable Care Act. The months of public accusations and scare tactics attacking the arrival of “Obama Care” were not enough to scare us into trying to survive until we qualified for medicare in five years!
When the initial open enrollment period online opened, the reports of problems signing up caused us to decide to wait. A quick look at the program disclosed no coverage was to begin until at least January 2014 anyway, and as reported signup problems persisted the deadline for eligibility for earliest January first coverage kept being pushed back. After Thanksgiving I resolved to get us signed up, whatever it took!
I am web savvy so when I started having problems signing up I was able to figure out what they were about pretty fast. That does not mean it was easy to get past them. Their database did nor recognize my address, 1 ½ Street, as valid. Neither would it recognize my road’s other name, County Road “K”. I had filled out the entire form, bypassing the message that I had entered a undeliverable mailing address, only to find I could not proceed to actually choose a health plan.
I got on the phone to the health plan phone bank help line. Over the next week I talked to at least four different phone representatives. Each was completely polite and as helpful as they could be, considering they were talking to someone getting more and more frustrated! Thankfully I was able to call during off-peak hours so I had practically no wait time to get through. Each of the first three calls involved going over the problem, where it was at, what I encountered and where it was left. The first two times were spent going over trying to “reload” my basic account information, which was where my address error was. The third time the assistant left me with the advice that I would have to delete my account and start over. After now spending over six hours on the phone, starting our application over was not what I wanted to hear! I fumed a couple of days, then finally deleted my profile and started over again. This time as soon as I encountered the address problem, and the previously recommended solution did not work, I called into the help desk again. This time I assertively explained the problem, its history, and demanded to talk to a supervisor. I was eventually connected with a supervisor.
They were really understanding of my frustration, and he volunteered to take over my application and enter information on his end so he could see exactly the problem, do some work-around magic, and move past it. We stayed on the phone for another ninety minutes until my application was complete, and for the first time I could see the health plan options available, and at what subsidy level was appropriate for our family income.
By mid December we had picked a plan, signed up for coverage, and gotten our welcome information (and our first monthly bill) from our new insurer. Even after subsidy we are paying nearly $400 a month for both of us, but that is for a fairly low deductible, co-pay, limited annual maximum payout plan. It is a typical HMO kind of plan. The cost represents a significant amount of our income, but for the first time ever we were consumers of our own chosen purchased health plan. Neither of us were familiar with the complexities of how they worked. We had to stay within plan approved doctors and facilities, which meant abandoning our nearby cash doctor for one 30 miles away. We understood the plan to cover health maintainance, subsidize prescription costs, and after an initial $250 deductible each, cover the lion’s share of most of our health care expense. We were suspicious of the product, but excited to visit our new general practitioner doctor for an introductory assessment appointment.
Judy and I went to the clinic together for back to back appointments and our experience was wonderful. A professional staff did all the preliminaries, taking basic personal stats, health and family history, and our new insurance information. We were split up for our doctor exam, and we were both surprised she spent over an hour with each of us exploring our histories more deeply, and answering all our questions. We each had some underlying concerns to explore, and near the end of my session I just casually mentioned I was disappointed as I had quit smoking about 8 months earlier and I felt like I was more easily out of breath with exertion than when I was still smoking. The doctor scheduled a stress test and consult with a cardiologist for the following week.
I thought the test was probably a little excessive, an example of the test happy trend in modern medicine. I met with the cardiologist, and did the treadmill stress test. It involved two chest CT scans (X-ray computed tomography ) with dye. One was at rest, and then the second was a few minutes after exercising until my heart rate was quite elevated. The staff was concerned I was ok and did not feel dizzy as I finished, but I was used to occasionally doing very hard work. The concern for me falling over seemed silly.
I returned in the afternoon for an echocardiogram and another meeting with the cardiologist. He said the good news was that the echocardiogram showed my heart valves were in good shape, the heart showed no signs of any damage or stroke, and as a blood pump was working fine. The bad news was I had evidence of some serious obstruction in several of the vessels that fed oxygen to sustain the heart muscle.
He said the matter was serious and that I could suffer a stroke at any time. The obstructions needed to be addressed. The cardioloist wanted me in at dawn Tuesday for an angiogram. This is the procedure where a catheter is run up to the heart from the thigh through a main artery. Dye can be selectively inserted and the exact location and degree of obstruction of the vessels of the heart viewed live by scan.
One of three options would happen while I was out. Either they would observe the obstructions were not serious enough to require intervention, the obstructions would be opened by inserting up to five stints, or if a worse case was found they would stop the procedure and the obstructions would be “bypassed” by sewing in vein segments harvested from my leg in a following surgery.
Judy and I arrived at Sacred Heart hospital in Eau Claire at 6am, having fasted since dinner. Sacred Heart is a private Catholic hospital, and crucifixion iconography dominates each room and the building common areas. Even for a Pagan it felt like a spiritual place of healing. I was prepped for the angiogram and the procedure, anesthetic, and awakening procedure was explained to me. The procedure is serious because blood loss through the thigh artery can be rapid with a complication, and you are entering the heart with a catheter. I awoke shortly after noon and was informed I would need a triple bypass surgery, tentatively scheduled for Friday. By afternoon I was recovering in the regular cardio wing. This means three pieces of vein would span over the obstructed portions of three different veins feeding the heart and sewn in place. I was scheduled for a supplemental cat scan the next day and Judy returned home.
The CT scan was focused on my neck and revealed I had a significantly clogged corotid artery. I was referred to a vascular surgeon specialist. She said a surgery to open and clean out my carotid artery was indicated before I could undergo bypass surgery. This is also considered a major surgery. The risk of something breaking loose and causing stroke during the bypass heart surgery without this first was too high. I would be partially woken as soon as the surgery was done to assure there were no stroke effects. I was scheduled for this at 7am Thursday morning.
Judy was driving down in the morning and bringing her tools. These surgeries required the removal of all my piercings, both ear and nipple. The nurse had removed a couple, but the last two needed a steady hand and a needle nose to remove. These days electric cauterization is often used and you can’t have anything arcing over to miscellaneous body metal ! As I was waiting to be moved into the surgical arena, the pastor came and touched my arm and asked if we could pray together. I said it was fine if he prayed for me, just do it in the hall way, and whatever he did was appreciated. He was polite and left me to commune with my patron god before going under.
By 5pm I was awake and with Pagan visitors in a recovery room. I was pretty out of it, but got some magical tools and items to empower me in the next round of surgery. We had talked with my surgical team about the possibility of going right to the bypass surgery on Friday. They advised that while they sometimes do that in life threatening situations, in my case it was advisable to wait until Monday so could recover more.
Friday, Valentines Day
I was blessed by the visit of a Valentines Fairy. A girl of six, dressed in fairy wings, glittery tights and purple glitter covered shoes arrived to deliver me a valentine card, and two chocolates. Each meal that day was accompanied by a handmade card from an Eau Claire elementary school student. What a treasure!
From Friday until Sunday I was resident Pagan in the cardio ward. I was blessed with a stream of eclectic visitors most of the weekend. I had poppits, and stones, rattles, runes, and cards to see me through. I took the time to prepare myself to focus the shower of energetic energy being sent my way to a familiar place to act as a reservoir I could draw from over the next week. My patron had seen me through my last dive into death, and I felt more confident He would come through to shelter me again. Judy and our Priestess stayed over next door tobe with me tomorrow. After all my guests left two enthusiastic Philippine aides decided to shave me from neck to toe, figuring the surgeons can’t complain if there is no hair left!
I left the surgical prep room for the bypass with more apprehension knowing my heart would be stopped, but knowing the support of my Gods and community were also available to me. I woke about 3pm, very groggy happy Judy knew I was ok.
At 10 am I was moved back to the cardio ward and beginning my first hallway trek with a walker. I wanted to get home so by Tuesday I was walking all three wings four times a day. By Wednesday I walked with no walker, and Thursday I could walk without an aid present, and five times a day. I am still a little creative with my own care. I was concerned my nipple piercing holes were going to close up, and the staff couldn’t aid me inserting them again. With the tapered tine of a dinner fork I was able to reinsert them to the shock and amazement of the nurses!
Friday, after eleven days in cardio ICU ;
Judy came early to meet with the surgeons and dietitian about my needs on release. We both knew it would be hard to keep me from over exerting myself. We both have a commitment to eating better. After a stop at the pharmacy for a load of subsidized prescriptions we arrived home in the remnants of one last snowstorm. Later that night two great friends arrived with a new reclining chair, a marvelous gift to get my feet up and even sleep in when the pain is overwhelming!
I have been blessed with a loving family and community who have offered ongoing support. Dealing with this kind of health crisis in a rural environment is difficult, and we would have been lost without this support.
I really thank everyone who has helped me get through this personal health crisis. I want to thank President Obama for fighting to make my care possible and affordable for me for the first time. Without the Affordable Care Act I would have likely opted out of the diagnostic care just faced with the full cash cost of the stress test. Without that test result and the care I received it is very possible I would not be alive today! We will pay several thousand dollars for our care this year, but the total cost will be in the hundreds of thousands.
It disturbs me with the amount of health risk in our community that more Pagans have not secured health care through the Affordable Health Act. For our family, we would have remained uninsured for another five years, and at immense potential cost to the public. This open enrollment period ends on March 31, 2014 and allows modest income families and individuals to get insurance at reduced and subsidized prices, and with coverage for pre-existing conditions. Please check out enrollment this weekend. With an account set up you can see all the options and costs available to you without obligation.
President Obama, you saved my life!