Charity Begins at Home

That ain't insurance. That's a jack.

-Chris Rock

t was around this time a few short weeks ago that I was sitting outside the ICU unit in a local hospital, waiting to hear the condition of one of my coworkers, who'd just had a heart attack (at the age of 50).

It was later that night that I learned this wasn't as anomalous situation as I'd imagine: "60 million Americans suffer from cardiovascular disease, one out of every five, making it the number one killer in the country. Cardiovascular disease is also the number one killer of American women, afflicting one out of every two. Each year 2.5 million women are hospitalized for it and about 500,000 die. That's more women than died from all other causes combined, including lung, breast, ovarian, and uterine cancer."

I know this now, because I was stumbling through the office in the middle of the night, looking for something I could read at the hospital, and found An Arrow Through the Heart, by Deborah Daw Heffernan, near the top of the new books tower that was in danger of collapsing the edit desk.

It's an unusually compelling narrative of a woman who was fit, ate well, exercised right, and had a heart attack at the age of 44 in the middle of yoga class.

I read the book while I waited for my friend to wake up. After a few hours in the E.R., three days in ICU, and another two in telemetry, she was sent home to "recover" with little medical support or instruction, and zero budget for the incredibly expensive pharmaceuticals that were necessary to her recuperation.

Hospital tab for our friend and colleague? $29,000, plus change.

As one of millions of uninsured part-time workers in this country (she puts in ten hours a week here, and spends the rest of the time building her practice as a massage therapist), we are all watching in helpless frustration as she falls through the cracks of a system.

The obscene cost of health care has hit home for us this year.

With a large number of doctors in my social circle, I am well aware of how hard they work and how much they paid (and are still paying) for their educations (one of them has a monthly student loan payment that is twice the cost of my mortgage)-making me reluctant to tar them with the brush of money-grubbing evil. (Though I'm sure there are some that fit that label; I just don't know them.) Yes, my friends make a good living. A few are even extravagantly wealthy. But it's not out of proportion to their skills or their level of investment.

I have my doubts about the rest of the medical/health industry.

As an employer, I've watched our premiums skyrocket, as our standard of care dwindles, and the paperwork becomes more onerous and unwieldy.

The HMO now regularly overrides our physicians and dictates to the pharmacy - for example - what drugs and what dosage they feel is appropriate for the members of our staff, should - God forbid - one of us get sick. It makes one wonder why they bother to allow us to visit doctors at all, since they so clearly know best.

It is highly likely that if I stood on our office corner at 2nd and Jefferson for more than five minutes, I could score a higher grade of pharmaceuticals, at a cheaper price, than what the HMOs regularly jack us for.

It was issues like these that went to the heart of the decision to designate the medical and living expenses fund of our friend Ronni Lundy as the beneficiary of this year's Taste of Ace.

We'd all been praying for her recovery since she was diagnosed with advanced-stage ovarian cancer last fall.

As a small business, with a small budget, we try to choose charitable endeavors where we think we can make a difference. We don't expect we'll ever host an event that will generate enough revenue to cure cancer or AIDS or world hunger - but, with enough help from our friends, we always hope we can raise enough to ensure that a few people will get fed, or will get the medicine they need for another week or two. While none of us have a million bucks lying around, many of us can spare $20 or $30.

Eventually (we hope), it starts to add up.

Spiraling health care costs aside, that doesn't even take into account the fact that both cancer and cancer treatment left Lundy largely unable to work for many months- eliminating her primary source of income as a long-time freelancer, with numerous editorial and writing projects on the table.

It also doesn't take into account the long-term price of co-pays and partial pays and uncovered expenses that accompany any long-term aggressive cancer treatment protocol.

Like our recovering post-cardiac colleague, both are too sick to earn the normal income they are capable of. But neither is sick enough, or destitute enough, to qualify for any sort of meaningful assistance.

So, when HMOs and pharmaceutical giants, their well-paid lobbyists, and their duly-compensated, wholly-owned members of congress, stand up and talk about how their rising costs are justified by all the "corruption" in the system that's cutting into their profit margin, they make me sick. Sick at heart. Sick to my stomach.

Fortunately, not sick enough to require medical attention.

But at least I have the comfort of knowing that if I ever am denied proper care, I'll posthumously designate every penny I have, and the aid of every lawyer I know (732 at last count), to ensuring that the hospitals and HMOs will be litigated straight to hell.

Unfortunately, I'll just be too dead to enjoy it.

Selected Reading

Spontaneous Healing by Dr. Andrew Weil

Healing from the Heart by Dr. Mehmet Oz

Heart: A personal journey through its myths and meanings by Gail Godwin

Anatomy of the Spirit by Caroline Myss

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche

A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman