In times of health, insurance seemed optional

  • Article by: KATHERINE MORROW
  • Updated: November 25, 2011 - 6:29 PM

But that was partly because the costs posed a barrier to access. What if the United States treated this issue as other countries do?


Photo: Jennifer Kohnke, Tribune Media Services

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Before I became seriously ill, I was skeptical about modern medicine. I saw the treatments as expensive, painful and not always effective. The simple advice of eating right and getting exercise seemed to cure any ailment that I had.

I was faced with some starker realities when unrelenting pain and disability forced me into medical care in a country far from my Minnesota home.

Three short weeks ago I was on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation to Italy with my husband, Jim, who chose to celebrate turning 60 this way. Although I had pain in my leg before I left, I assumed that, like anything else, it would go away after a little rest.

The four days of walking and taking the trains must have put stress on my leg, because in Florence I slumped over in the street in agony. I could no longer walk.

Not quite believing that it could be anything more than a pulled muscle or stretched tendon, we rented a car, hoping that a few days in the Tuscan countryside would help me to heal. The pain only worsened.

The kind receptionists at the Hotel Salivolpi in Castellina in Chianti called a doctor for me on the third day of our stay. A dapper little man actually made a house call to my hotel room.

He moved my leg back and forth a bit and pantomimed a hip in a socket. He called the ambulance, and within half an hour I was on my way to Azienda Ospedliera Universitaria Senese, known to us as "the Siena hospital."

When questioned about my overall health, I confessed to the confused young emergency-room intern that I had untreated breast cancer. "Why didn't you treat it?" he asked.

An X-ray confirmed that a tumor in my leg had caused a fracture at the top of my femur. I would need an operation in order to ever walk again. Although the orthopedic doctor there offered to do the operation, I couldn't stay where I knew so little of the language.

When my husband and I realized that we had to get on our flight to return to the United States, the slight, competent Dr. Libertini kindly called us a private ambulance.

We spent 300 euros to get to the Pisa airport to catch a connection back to Paris and from there to Minneapolis. The attendants with their wheelchairs at the airports, along with my husband carrying me, brought me back home safely.

Upon returning, even though I have no health insurance, I knew I desperately needed medical care. I soon got it -- the best that money can buy -- at St. Cloud Hospital. According to doctors there, I needed total hip replacement. I got a breast biopsy.

A few days later, the tumor in my leg was removed, and a new hip was put in place. I am now walking with a walker and have begun treatments for breast and bone cancer.

My income is probably too high to be eligible for charity, so this hospital stay and treatment will wipe us out.

If health care would have been accorded to me as easily in the United States as it was in Italy, I might have opted to treat my breast cancer before it moved to my bones. Ten years ago, health insurance would have taken almost one full check of the two checks I got a month.

The price seemed too high when I was feeling well. Until this month, I hadn't taken a single sick day in 10 years at my job.

Although it is too late for me, I hope that the mandated health insurance will be upheld in the courts.

Universal coverage is a good first step in helping to reduce the costs and to bring down the barriers so American citizens can receive the simple human right that people, even tourists, in other developed countries receive as a matter of course: medical care when they need it.

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Katherine Morrow, of Onamia, is a librarian.

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