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Being Sick in America

By Farooq A. Kperogi When you are in America, don’t fall sick—as if anyone can choose when and where to fall sick! But, seriously, if for an...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

When you are in America, don’t fall sick—as if anyone can choose when and where to fall sick! But, seriously, if for any reason you fall sick, don’t go to the emergency department of a hospital unless, of course, your very survival is contingent on it. Well, except you’re stupendously affluent. I committed this error a few weeks ago. And I’m not some moneyed aristocrat. You want to know what price I paid for this? Then read on.

I came down with an unusually infernal fever the day I returned to Atlanta, my first in over a decade and only my third in my entire conscious life. It’s perhaps this infrequency of febrile encounters in my health history that hyperbolized the sensation of extreme danger I felt. The severe spasm of excruciating pains I underwent made me think I was actually in the throes of dying. So I called my friend here and requested that he leave whatever he was doing and come drive me to the nearest hospital immediately. “I’m dying over here,” I exclaimed.

Alarmed, he drove down to my apartment at once. But he met me not nearly as hopelessly clutched by the jaws of death as my exaggeratedly anguished plea for help suggested. So he advised that I book an appointment to see a doctor the following day. In America, unlike in Nigeria, you don’t just walk in to a hospital without at least a 24-hour prior appointment and expect to receive treatment. The only section of the hospital that accepts walk-ins is the emergency room. I insisted that we go there forthwith.

“But let me warn you: ERs (emergency rooms) are very pricey,” my friend said. But I thought my life was more important than any price the hospital would charge me. So off to the ER we went.

During the course of my brief triage (sorting) interview with the nurse on duty, I mentioned that I had just returned from Nigeria. And the mention of Nigeria changed the conversation dramatically. “Did you just say you returned from Nigeria?” the nurse asked, her mien now grave.

She immediately left the consulting room and went to get a face mask for me. I asked her why I needed to wear a face mask. “Well, it’s just in case you have malaria.” Well, but, malaria is not infectious. You don’t need much medical education to know that.

But I was in no mood for unavailing arguments. Besides, I have lived long enough in this country to know that Africa has been stereotyped as the diseased continent. A Nigerian friend who has lived here longer than I have told me I was lucky that I was not immediately quarantined; he said that’s often the fate of many people who return from Africa with a sickness, any sickness.

And that’s not difficult to believe. When I lived in the state of Louisiana, a Portuguese friend of mine once asked me to accompany him to a blood donation center. He wanted to donate his blood for charity. It was there I discovered that the first question they ask people before accepting their blood is: “Have you been to Africa in the last one year?” If the answer is yes, they would politely decline your offer to donate your blood. I was outraged by this discovery. But my friend said it’s a standard question even in Europe.

Well, to get back to my story, the nurse took me to the doctor who also repeatedly asked me if I had just returned from Nigeria. He then put me through a battery of tests that were, in retrospect, needless, even pointless. In the end, it turned out that nothing was wrong with me. I was as fit as a fiddle. The three different blood tests tested negative to everything, including to malaria. The X-rays, urine tests, etc also showed that I was in perfect health. I was probably just stressed. I was relieved.

But two weeks later, I received a bill in the mail. Guess how much it was? A walloping $4100, that is, about N635,000! More than half a million naira for mere mundane tests, two IV bags (drips), and two aspirins? And I spent just about four hours in the emergency room! Well, that’s American capitalism for you. Even sickness is a commodity to be exploited for crass profit.

Fortunately for me, I have health insurance to which I’ve been paying for years but have never had cause to use. My health insurance company will pay most of this outrageous bill, and I am going to pay only a fraction of it.

But almost 50 million Americans (most of whom, by the way, are Blacks and Hispanics) are not that lucky: They have no health insurance. If they were to find themselves in my kind of situation, they would be irreparably ruined financially—and many have been. And regular hospitals won’t even admit much less treat them.

That’s what Obama is trying to reform. But representatives of big business who are profiting from the current system are mounting a spirited resistance and are whipping up vile and mean-spirited sentiments against him to accomplish their goal.

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