Having access to health care saved this patient’s life

Now more than ever, health insurance is a staple story in the 24-hour news cycle. Opinions vary widely on the issue, as do politician’s thoughts on the matter. Debates rage, tensions grow, and deeper divides are formed as our government wrestles with this colossal dispute. Nestled at the heart of it all though is a basic question:

Is health insurance a right or a privilege in the United States?

I’m alive today because my school district, where I’ve now taught for 20 years, offers the “Cadillac” of insurance plans. On April 26, 2006, I checked into the hospital for a scheduled C-section. Due to scleroderma, I was a high-risk patient, but based on the uneventful delivery of my son three years before, doctors anticipated I would go home with my newborn daughter in four days.

I came home in a wheelchair 218 days later.

Catastrophic postpartum complications led to eight major surgeries, over 100 days in the intensive care unit, and an additional six months of intensive physical, occupational, respiratory, and speech therapy after I was released from the hospital. My tour of hospitals spanned four different facilities and cost millions of dollars. I’m not even including the maintenance drugs and medical supplies I will require for the rest of my life due to a permanent ostomy bag, neuropathy, and a myriad of other health obstacles I acquired during that seven-month hospitalization.

Not only did I have superior health insurance from my employer, but I was also covered under my husband’s policy. Having secondary insurance is a luxury few can afford. My husband was 32 years old with a dying wife, a newborn, and a 3 year old. He had the weight of the world on his shoulders, but never once had to worry about the avalanche of medical bills that flooded our mailbox daily.

Every CT scan, surgery, TPN bag, port, drainage appliance, IV tube, tracheotomy supply, intubation, and rehabilitation therapy was covered. When my family made the life-saving decision to have me transferred to a hospital better equipped to handle my complicated case, they didn’t worry that it wouldn’t get approved by insurance. In short, my family moved heaven and earth to save my life and my health insurance paid for it all.

I was not just fortunate to have the “golden ticket of health insurance. In addition to being doubly covered, both my sister and her husband are physicians. They knew how to navigate the caverns of the health care system and advocated for me relentlessly. If a doctor didn’t want to order a test, but they thought I needed it, they fought tooth and nail to make it happen. My sister and brother-in-law weren’t just my advocates, they also served as medical translators for our friends and family.

With my traumatic crisis now eleven years in the rear view mirror, I marvel at my extreme good fortune during those dark months.

What would have happened to me if I didn’t possess outstanding health insurance? How might my fate have been altered had I not had two doctors in my family? Would I have survived if I had been an uneducated individual who didn’t speak English? What if I hadn’t had an intricate tapestry of support from friends and family who cared for my children, visited me around the clock, and literally and figuratively carried me through the most terrifying year of my life? I can’t say with conclusive evidence that I would have died without all these factors playing in my favor, but I suspect that’s the case.

Is my life more important than someone who doesn’t have health insurance? Were my children more entitled to be raised by their mother because their aunt and uncle are doctors? Did my husband deserve to escape becoming a young widower because we had the resources to cover me under two insurance plans? I don’t know the answers to the big health care questions plaguing our nation. I do, however, believe with all my heart that the answer to my three questions above, should be a definitive “no.”

Lisa Goodman Helfand is founder, Patient Perspective Consulting and the author of Does This Hospital Gown Come With Sequins?  She blogs at Comfortable in My Thick Skin. A version of this article was originally published in the Scleroderma News Network.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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