The Cost of an Unexpected Medical Crisis

When Urgent Care can’t figure out what’s wrong.

House, M.D.

Day 1

I turned 30 on the first day of spring and, as if on a timer, my body started breaking down the very next day. On a Tuesday in March, I started feeling a slow, building sense of pain in a very sensitive part of the body. I ignored it for the first day or so, and then I began delicately texting friends for medical advice.

“Have you ever had a literal pain in your butt?” I posited. “Asking for a friend…”

None of them had, but by the power of combined WebMD combing, we were more or less convinced I probably had a hemorrhoid. I went to Zoom Care near my apartment and suggested as much to the physician on call. I was given some low-key pain meds and told to use a medicated cream.

This was my first mistake.

Day 3

The pain was much, much worse. I called off from work and lay in bed, unable to walk. I took an Uber to Urgent Care, and was given a different, but still inaccurate, butt problem diagnosis. I was given more pain meds, but nothing was helping.

Day 8

I asked a friend to take me to the emergency room. I was there for four hours and begged them to admit me. Instead, I was given oxycodone and sent back home.

Day 11

I couldn’t move. I’d let my company know I needed to be on sick time and that I was struggling to get help. They were extremely understanding, but I didn’t know how much longer I could let this go on. All I could do was stay in bed, unmoving, listening to podcasts with my eyes closed. Despite having no appetite, I ate unrefrigerated carrots and grapes out of Ziploc bags my friends had brought me. I could barely choke anything down, and I wasn’t drinking any fluids because I also wasn’t going to the bathroom. I was in excruciating, mysterious pain, convinced my kidneys were shutting down, and worried I was about to die alone in my apartment. At the end of my rope, I called 911. I felt ridiculous describing my emergency, and the dispatchers did not seem impressed when they came for me, but I didn’t know what else to do. It was the most expensive four blocks I’d ever travel.

Luckily, when I got to the hospital, my actions were validated.

“It’s a good thing you came in,” a nurse told me, and informed me I had a serious infection called an abscess, deep in the tissue of the left side of my body. It just hadn’t been visible until then — but by the time I was in the hospital, it had swelled considerably. I had emergency surgery hours later.

The most frustrating thing about this was learning that nothing could have been done to prevent the infection. There was no cause; an abscess, it sounds like, can form anywhere on your body at any time, with no warning, so there’s something else for us all to worry about.

Treating the Abscess

I live alone, I don’t have a partner, and my family is all on the other half of the country. My dad flew out from Ohio as soon as he could, and stayed at my apartment during my hospital stay. I had two surgeries in four days, one to remove the dead tissue killed by the infection, and one to place something called a wound vac on the impacted area. I was in the hospital for twelve days, and my dad ended up staying in Portland for a week longer than he had originally planned.

He had a great time visiting, regardless of the circumstances. He had been listening to me bemoan the drudgery of a rainy Portland winter for the last six months, yet it had been gorgeous and sunny since the day I landed myself in a hospital bed. He would walk into my hospital room and bellow, “It’s a beautiful day outside!” while I stared enviously out the window.

He brought from my apartment the things I’d left behind in my haste — books and magazines, my phone charger. My place was in a state of frenzied disaster, since it had been occupied by a very freaked out sick person for two weeks before he got there. With the help of some very kind Portland friends, he made sure the place was clean and my laundry was done so I didn’t need to worry about them while I was away.

Even though the infection was gone, I was in rough shape. My body had worn itself down fighting it off, and while I was on an antibiotics drip, that wore on me, too. My body and brain don’t respond well to pain pills, but I had to take them anyway. On top of all of this—literally—I now had a large wound on my left side, from which the dead tissue had been removed.

In the hospital, I tried not to worry about the work I was missing or what my insurance was and wasn’t going to cover. I’d never been in a hospital for longer than 24 hours before, and I knew they wouldn’t keep me for almost two weeks unless it was absolutely necessary. I tried to focus on getting better and staying positive. The positivity part was a struggle, but the nursing staff at the hospital made a huge difference in both areas. They were kind and even greeted my dad by name when he came in each morning.

“Look at what a beautiful view you have from your window!” he would exclaim, admiring another bright, sunny day. He was right, but it didn’t help. I cursed Portland weather for finally turning around at the worst possible time.

My dad stayed around for a couple of days after I got out of the hospital. Before he left, he made a couple of grocery store runs for me, and went out to get my prescriptions. On his last afternoon in Portland, he came back from Walgreens completely soaked. It was gray outside once again.

“That rain just came outta nowhere!” he said, mopping his face.

I was glad he was there for me, but I could barely contain my schadenfreude.

The Cost of an Unexpected Medical Crisis

—Uber rides to and from Urgent Care, Walgreens: $30.32

—-Ambulance ride for four blocks: $1,008 (I only had to pay ~$200)

—Hospital bills for twelve days: Unclear — either my insurance picked up the tab on this one, or the other shoe is yet to drop?

—Post-op physician visit: $287

—Home health care: $45 co-pay per visit, 2–3 times per week for six weeks

This doesn’t count a lot of money spent at Walgreens on misguided attempts at wellness, but my dad was nice enough to pick up some expenses while he was visiting.

“Hopefully now you can put this all… behind you,” my dad said as he left. “Get it?”

I’m still recovering, because tissue takes time to re-build, but I’m in the clear and not in any pain at all. I went back to work full-time a few weeks ago, and my company sent me a giant care package. In the end, I missed almost a month of work. It was a major disruption to my life and to my employer, but I was very lucky to work for a company that cares about its employees. I used up all of my sick time for the rest of 2016 and some vacation days, but I didn’t miss a paycheck. I’ve also hit my insurance deductible, so maybe 2016 is the year for me to get some elective surgeries out of the way.

Thanks to my friend Dot for this.

Meryl Williams is a Portland writer who is chronicling her life as a roller derby girl via her awesome TinyLetter. She loves Rilo Kiley and most cheeses.

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