Wednesday, 14 November 2012

A Very Expensive Scratch

As misfortune would have it, the day after my birthday I woke up at 2am.

This time it was nothing to do with present-opening anticipation (though the US Postal Service still has one of my parcels) and everything to do with the fact I was crying like Gwyneth Paltrow on Oscars night. Out of just one eye.

Somehow, in the excitement of birthday shenanigans, I had done something untoward to my eyeball.

Now, way back in about 2002, I had experienced a similar incident, which began with some overvigorous contact lens removal and ended with a trip to Moorfields Hospital, where they informed me I had ulcerated my cornea and was at distinct risk of blindness. Losing my sight would put a distinct dampener on the holiday mood and my media career, so I thought I’d best get it seen to. And, given we were heading off to Boston the next day, sharpish.

For added medical value, a common or garden skin-type deal had also flared up. Buy one issue, get one free, you might say.

Or not, as the US health system might have it. Because for someone who’s grown up with the begrudging but functional NHS system, having to shell out like P Diddy on club night just to get checked over hurt almost as much as the injuries themselves.

A walk-in at the emergency clinic had a starting price of $125, and a warning that any additional tests would incur extra fees.

I will say that it was comprehensive in the extreme – weight, blood pressure and pulse (a slothlike 54bpm despite the stress of the circumstances), full sight test and plenty of gazing and prodding at the relevant regions. It was also uncompromisingly jolly – a demeanor that is rarely to be found in UK doctors’ surgeries.

But as the nurse laid out a plethora of swabs, syringes, lab slides and petri dishes on the side table, along with gloves, gels and antibacterial wipes, it was impossible to ignore my ever decreasing bank balance.

Half of me wanted to sprint from the table yelling, “If I’m not blind in a week, I’ll pop back”.

As it happened all was relatively minor, and I was sent on my way with a prescription for antibiotic drops, creams and tablets.

Despite two of these items being sold over the counter in the UK for around £5, the medicine totalled another $98.47. By this point I was ready to just hand over my entire wallet, along with an IOU for my firstborn child.

Being somewhat clumsy, I never travel without insurance, but with an excess of £100 (yeah, no one really reads that bit) and a daily spending allowance of just $15 each, the $223.47 overall bill was definite insult on top of injury.

We’ve chalked it up to the contingency fund, and the “adventure” of travelling, but it was a rude (actually exceptionally-courteous) reminder of how easily things can go downhill if you're in the US without health insurance. And in recent week's I've encountered several sporting types who are nursing serious injury, without treatment, for just that reason.

Next time I encounter the surly scowl of the receptionist at my local London GP, I’ll just count my blessings I’m not paying for the privilege.

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