This morning I woke at 4:30 a.m. to prepare for my third trip to Stroger Hospital this week. Every day this week has been stressful due to the huge time commitment associated with even one trip to the hospital. Last year I had to be there five days a week for five weeks for radiation appointments. I certainly was feeling better about the process today than I did back then.
At a few minutes before seven in the morning I parked in the hospital’s lot. There were more than a dozen open spaces in the last row of the second floor. I hunkered down in my seat to grade papers because my appointment was not for a couple of hours. The weather turned cold yesterday evening. Thursday afternoon we hit a record high of 79 degrees. I could see my breath when I exhaled in the morning.
I wore what I will always think of as my cancer sweater. It’s gray, coat length, and heavy enough to keep the cold at bay for the walk from the car to the hospital building. It is not heavy enough to become a dead weight as I walk around the hospital trying to get things done.
As I marked a student’s contract I kept stopping to draw a long blonde hair from the sweater’s loose guage. I wore this sweater when my chin-length bob was falling from my scalp to my shoulders and from there to the floor.
It has been through the washer several times since then. I predict that I will reencounter my long lost locks for as long as I keep that sweater around. I have no plans to discard it. It served as a blanket during six long chemo sessions. It shrouded me in silence during tedious waits for appointments. I rolled it up and used it as a pillow once or twice.
The people who arrived after the hospital opened whizzed around the parking lot over and over as they despaired of ever finding a parking space. I could see an empty space several rows closer to the door than my parking space. It was unavailable because a pick-up truck had encroached on it. One by one drivers tried to fit into the narrow opening. Each gave up and returned to circling.
I went inside when my fingers started to feel the cold. I walked down the hallway to Room 1690 and waited in the line to check in for my appointment. The waiting area was nearly empty. There were five people waiting and the number being served was 151 when I got in line. It was 154 when I made it to the receptionist.
She looked at my paperwork. “You need to go back down the hall to Room 1290,” she said. “Go to the coffee shop and make two lefts.”
She handed me a piece of paper with my name and the time: 8:49 a.m. My appointment was scheduled for 10 a.m. It never pays to be late. Numbers come and go. People not present when called are passed over.
I walked back the way I had come and found Room 1290 in the area near the elevators where I once waited for permission to ride upstairs for doctor’s appointments. I walked into a waiting room. One woman sat in the three rows of chairs. She pointed to a reception desk. “Start there,” she said.
This room was unlike the waiting room at Room 1690. At that end of the hallway there are about fifty chairs in an open waiting area. Then there are about as many chairs in a second, enclosed waiting area. Every seat is filled in that second, enclosed waiting area.
I approached the receptionist. “Do you have a slip?” he asked.
I handed him my piece of paper.
“Have a seat.”
I sat down and went back to grading.
After awhile someone came to collect me. She pointed to one of two hallways leading from the waiting area. “Take a seat in booth three.”
I walked down the hall and sat down in a carrel. She used the other hallway and met me on the other side of her desk.
I explained that I had an appointment to “renew” my charitable status at the hospital.
“Did you bring everything we need for that review?” she asked.
“Yes.” I took out my driver’s license, original determination letter, birth certificate, marriage certificate, divorce certificate, pay stubs, and a current utility bill. She studied them and her computer screen.
“You will have to return in January with these papers and up-to-date pay stubs and a current utility bill.”
I know I raised my eyebrows, but I was careful not to challenge. This is not the type of place that welcomes challenges.
“You don’t owe the hospital anything right now,” she explained. “You need to have your status reviewed when you receive uncovered service. I see your next appointment is in January. Come back then. You won’t need an appointment. You’ve been through that rigamarole aleady.”
She continued to study my papers. “I’m going to make copies of some of these documents so we won’t have to do that when you come back,” she said. “Wait here.”
Off she went.
I found myself recalling a time in my life when I could get irate about having to wait thirty minutes to see a doctor. Back when I charged $275/hour for my legal advice I sometimes wondered aloud with whom people thought they were dealing by dragging me away from my office, keeping me waiting, wasting my time. Those days are gone. I sincerely thanked the woman for her time, took my papers, and headed back out to my car.
This is what it means to be uninsured and diagnosed with cancer in America. You are grateful for the safety net and do not complain all that much about the difficulties. I am well aware that these inconveniences are minor when waiting means I can receive the care I need to live. The inconveniences hit me with much less pain than they do some others. I worry about the working poor with two jobs and no time off during the week. What about the people with young children? People sometimes wait on bus stops or on train platforms. They switch buses and trains. They walk long distances. They drag behind them their children or an aging relative. Sometimes they do not speak English. They may have to deal with foreign locations to obtain birth certificates or may be undocumented.
I already voted this week. I am not a big fan of the President. But I voted for him because I cannot write off the 47% of Americans that sometimes need the social services my past and current income taxes (and yours) have helped to make available. The people who rely on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, charity, and other programs are not faceless or nameless or useless. I understand that some in our society do not want to work so hard for the aid of others. I do understand that feeling. But do not imagine that here in uninsured America we are enjoying the fruits of others’ labors without being grateful. Please do not tell yourself that it is easier to be poor than it is to work. Please do not resent the fact that others are unemployed or underemployed or unemployable. Please do not fear us more than you fear finding yourself in need of assistance. Please don’t abandon the social compact.
We are a nation. The social compact that binds us together means that some are called to military service to protect our liberties. In times of war they have given their lives to protect this way of life. No one of us has ever given enough in thanks for their sacrifice. Some give their limbs, the right to bear or give life to children, their mental stability, or the quality of the remaining years of their lives. Nothing they receive financially for this service compensates for their suffering. Some are government servants. They toil each day on behalf of the public, most days without thanks or fanfare. When their service is done we sometimes complain about their pensions. Some serve in private endeavors such as charities. Their generosity is often anonymous. Some work and pay taxes. Some build businesses. Some work in them. All of us contribute. Maybe it has been awhile since anyone said thank you to you for your share of the national sacrifice. If that is the case, then let me rectify the oversight. Thank you for your service. It is sincerely appreciated.