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My health-care crisis 

There is no lesson more profound than a life-threatening illness


My health-care crisis is not national in scope. It does, however, involve all the elements necessary to be a crisis: money, emotional difficulty, pain, family discourse, faith, good doctors, bad doctors, amazing nursing care, insurance companies that do not respond to your requests, borderline bankruptcy, never-ending physical challenges, and the quintessential diagnosis of cancer in an otherwise healthy young American.

My health-care crisis started in October 2007. The phone call that revealed to me I had leukemia was soft in its approach but screamed loud in my mind. Being a former pediatrician and now a practicing anesthesiologist, I heard the results of my blood work and felt the weight of the number deep in my heart. I couldn’t put the blood back in my arm. I was and would ever be a cancer patient.

Why is this crisis important to anyone but me and my immediate family? I think it is a startling example of the many layers that make up this national debate on the delivery of health care. I am a patient struggling to get access to the best care for a life-threatening illness. I am a father of three whose deep faith drives many of his decisions. I am a doctor fighting for the autonomy and preservation of my profession in the face of intrusions from every side. Primarily, I am a person who has experienced a level of humiliation, pain, suffering, and struggle that dwarfs all these concerns and has made me realize a profound truth.

Health is the great equalizer.

Many of us worry about the economy, climate change, or retirement, and divorce may rock our world, or our job seems “so” important. We are mistaken. Despite the many tragedies that interrupt life, if your health fails, everything else quiets down and the only roar you hear is your next breath and the beat of your heart. If you are fortunate enough to be in a hospital, it becomes the beep of the monitor that is following each one of these breaths or beats. In this haze, your water bill is lost as you try to catch your breath or stop shaking from your fever. The unfed dog or phone call to Mom falls by the wayside. You can only grasp the nurse’s hand and hold on.

It seems harsh; its priority so distorted. Why would being sick be more important than faith, family, or dear friends? It isn’t, but the struggle to survive and walk out that proverbial front door trumps all else. Life’s basics tasks become one’s only focus.

During my health-care crisis, I have come to realize a few important facts. Some reflect my innate optimism, while others reveal a deep cynicism or realism learned while being on the “other side” of the mask.

- OPINION EDITOR’S NOTE:  Richard O’Neil died on Jan. 15 following a heart attack. He was 48 years old. In light of current debates about health-care reform, New Times is republishing his commentary, which first appeared in the Feb. 11, 2010, edition. -
  • OPINION EDITOR’S NOTE: Richard O’Neil died on Jan. 15 following a heart attack. He was 48 years old. In light of current debates about health-care reform, New Times is republishing his commentary, which first appeared in the Feb. 11, 2010, edition.

First, nurses save your life. Doctors remain an important and necessary cog in a wheel that turns endlessly and is called health care. But for eight to 12 hours, your nurse is the one person who “gets” you home: Simple tasks, kind deeds, assistance with personal duties, toxic medications, or that exquisitely timed touch when your hope is slipping away are where your life is renewed.

Secondly, insurance companies function efficiently only when you are not sick. I am convinced by the amount of hours and energy spent obtaining routine tests and reimbursement for medical needs so obvious that “prior approval” seemed laughable. Wearing you out with the phone, the mailbox, or the almighty pen is more of a mission statement than a corporate strategy. My insurance coverage has been excellent, but has come at a cost of close to $1,000 a month in premiums for many decades and $200K from my own pocket thus far. I have borrowed from my 401(k), relied on the generosity of others, and gone back to work earlier than my doctors recommended. If stress and time wasted reduces one’s survival rate, then I have lost precious time on this Earth.

Next, hard things are hard and good things are really good. This sounds elementary, but as the saying goes, “Everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten” may well be the most simple and prophetic truth ever verbalized. What I do know is faith sustains you in the darkest hours, when evil invades your mind and hope is attacked from all sides. Family and friends who don’t leave you in bad times are so important to your survival that their contributions cannot be understated.

Lastly, life’s tough … really tough. It is a journey through long valleys we walk and come to realize the awesome nature of our travels, recognizing that mountaintops are small. So I enjoy the valleys knowing that many things are painful, hard, and will never end for me. Life as I know it with its gifts, beauty, and miracles is worth the daily suffering that may never end until death brings me to a resting place with the God I know who cares for me and loves me dearly.

During this national debate, if we focus on these things and the person in “the bed,” we will make the right choices for our health care and future.

Richard O’Neil moved to San Luis Obispo in 2000 with his wife and three high-school children. He practiced anesthesiology as a partner with Coastal Anesthesiology Medical Associates. Send comments via the opinion editor at [email protected].


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