The clock read 9:30pm and in front of me was dozens of notes, PowerPoint slides, and practice exams to review before 8am. The all-too-familiar finals week all-nighter beckoned, and though I’ve had my fair share of experiences with studying until the sun rose, I decided to forgo the typical mug of coffee and take some over-the-counter caffeine pills instead. My friend proclaimed that they would help more than any energy drink would. I laid out all my exam materials, popped in a couple caffeine pills, and strapped myself in for a wild night of allopatric speciation and coadaptation. A wild night did ensue, but there was no evolutionary biology involved.
Around 11:30pm, what could only be described as the worst headache of my life, detracted me from my desk and led me to the bathroom floor. I decided something needed to be done. Student services at the university health system were closed, so that only left me with the ER as an option. An ER visit was outside the coverage of my standard student health insurance provided with tuition and I didn’t have a personal health insurance plan. I was wary of any costs that I might incur in the ER. Instead of an ambulance, my best friend, Eric, drove me to the hospital.
My face remained scrunched and my head continued to pound as Eric and I sat in the waiting room. When we were finally admitted, I listed my symptoms: “headache like I’ve never felt before,” vomiting, and bright light intolerance. The resident physician suggested meningitis or a brain aneurysm. He needed to run some tests to check the possibilities. It was 3am when I called my mom, telling her that I was in the hospital, asking her what I should do knowing we didn’t have insurance. She yelled, “Let them do whatever they need to do!” Knowing mothers are worriers, I asked the doctor what the pitfalls of not getting the tests were. He simply said, “Worst case scenario is that you die.” My friend said without reluctance, “Dude, don’t die.”
I was carted off for a CT scan. Afterwards, the resident physician outlined the steps of a spinal tap and explained how the results could help determine whether aneurysm was in the picture. He missed his target three times; I was lucky enough to have a 7-inch needle jammed into my back multiple times! After I jerked and shrieked as some sort of spinal nerve was struck, the attending physician stepped in and completed the diagnostic procedure on his first try. My friend stepped out after the first needle puncture. He mentioned later that he got a little sick seeing the needle thrusting in and out. The lumbar puncture experience was terrible, but not as terrible as the bill that was to come later.
My eyes bulged at the $8,000 amount due at the bottom of the bill. Multiple service items with astounding amounts were listed. I knew hospitals had to be reimbursed for their services, but I had no idea that a simple IV saline hookup would cost me hundreds of dollars! Had I known gold was flowing into my veins, I might have declined the second IV bag as the first one ran empty. I also didn’t know that a simple CT scan and diagnostic procedure would cost thousands.
What started out as a possible brain aneurysm, turned out to be a bad migraine. The migraines continued as any movement more than 20 yards during the next week would cause me to get sick and vomit. Had I known I was going to owe $8,000 for one night in the ER, I would have waited until the next morning when I could have visited the student university health department, free of charge. I ended up doing that a couple days after my ER visit anyways and that’s where they figured out what the ER folk couldn’t. They gave me a prescription for some vasopressin to help with my migraines and sent me on my merry way. The drugs helped and my migraines haven’t returned since. What didn’t help was the $8,000 bill that was added to my already growing debt from student loans.
Sammy Ta was a contestant, 2013 Costs of Care Essay Contest.
This post originally appeared on the Costs of Care Blog. Costs of Care is a 501c3 nonprofit that is transforming American health care delivery by empowering patients and their caregivers to deflate medical bills. Follow us on Twitter @costsofcare.