Unexpected costs and uninsured

By S. Matt Read

It was just before dawn, and Annie was shaking.  I said her name once without a response, then again. Nothing.  Then a long moan.  I jumped up and turned the light on.

Annie was having a seizure.

I ran to the next room and dialed 911 on our landline.  I relayed the information to the annoyingly calm operator.  Annie had no history of seizures, so for all I knew, she was dying.  I ran back to her and saw that, though she had stopped shaking, she had also stopped breathing.  I pinched her noise and blew into her mouth.  She came back, breathed deeply, and curled into a ball.

Because the hospital’s emergency room was about two blocks away, I heard the ambulance turn its siren on.  The medics were there soon after, packed Annie up, and after giving a short statement to a policeman, I took off after them. The medics must have pumped some happy drugs into Annie because when she came out of the back of the ambulance she smiled and waved to me.  I thought that perhaps things wouldn’t be so bad after all until Annie had another grand mal on her hospital bed.

That was a scary day.  The ER doctor ran a lot of tests because there wasn’t an apparent cause, but by the end of the day, a definitive source was no where to be found.  Even so, the doctor was very sympathetic and attentive, spoke with us quite a bit, and did us a huge favor by releasing Annie that evening.

Then we got the bill.

The ambulance that drove less than a quarter mile total charged over $2000.  The battery of tests cost over $5000.  We didn’t have insurance.

We now know that there is an established protocol for people who have a seizure whose duration is less than five minutes.  Don’t call 911.  Turn the person sideways so the saliva doesn’t block the air flow, and let the seizure work itself out.  By the time Annie was naturally getting over her first seizure, the medics whisked her away.  I could have done what they did, minus the drugs, for a couple of quarters.

What the doctor did, though fruitless in terms of fact­finding, still brought a certain measure of calm.  The tests showed that Annie didn’t have a brain tumor or any other life­threatening issue to worry about. There’s no price tag on that kind of knowledge.  It could have cost $10,000, and though financially painful, it would have been okay.

The ambulance is another story.  After all these years, I’m still incredulous.  They couldn’t have known, or cared, that we weren’t insured, but that hardly affects the main argument.  Whoever received that bill was going to get grossly overcharged; it just happened to be us.  Knowing the costs up front would have made the decision to take Annie myself a no­brainer.

That day we were in the ER for ten hours.  Toward the end, I filled out and signed some paperwork, naively thinking that this terrible day was behind us.  We wouldn’t receive the bill for another few days, however, so I guess we had that to be grateful for.  We thanked the staff and doctor, and then Annie was released.  It took us about a minute to drive home.


S. Matt Read was a contestant in the 2012 Costs of Care Essay Contest.

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