The Common Good

My Encounter with [Insert Scary Music] ... Socialized Medicine!

Sojomail - August 16, 2007


"When I hear my sergeants talking about slashing people's throats, if I'm not a conscientious objector, what am I when I'm feeling all this pain when people talk about violence?"

- PFC Agustín Aguayo, testifying before a U.S. Army court martial that convicted him of desertion after his attempts to secure conscientious objector status were denied. (Source: The Christian Science Monitor)

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My Encounter with [Insert Scary Music] ... Socialized Medicine!

My foot had been sore for a couple of weeks and it wasn’t getting better. I usually would ignore that, but we were about to leave on a two-week vacation with my wife Joy’s parents to celebrate both of our big anniversaries (their 50th and our 10th). Then I have to fly to Singapore for the World Vision triennial conference. So I wouldn’t be back home for many weeks and my Washington, D.C., health care provider (over the phone) strongly urged me to see a doctor in London before we left.

I realized then that I was about to have my first encounter with SOCIALIZED MEDICINE! Now it’s one thing to advocate health care reform in America and even to be politically sympathetic to the idea of a single-payer government-supported system like they have in most of the world’s developed and civilized countries (such as Canada, Germany, and Great Britain). But it was another thing to actually go to the emergency room (or ER, but in the U.K. they call it Accident and Emergency) of a hospital in the British National Health Service. After all, I had heard the horror stories—long waits in incompetent, dirty, and substandard medical facilities; bad doctors and faulty diagnoses; and, of course, incredible bureaucracies like everything in "socialist systems." Rush Limbaugh and every other conservative pundit have warned us all in America about the horrific practices of British socialized medicine.

So I prepared myself. I brought a big novel to read, along with my eyeglasses, a bottle of water (no telling what they would not have in socialized medicine), and emotionally steeled myself for the ordeal. Ann Stevens, the Anglican vicar with whom we stay in London (she’s my son Luke’s godmother and Joy’s old pal) took me to St. George’s hospital, dropped me off at "A and E," and wished me luck at 9 a.m. Hoping I would be home that night for dinner, I took a deep breath, walked across the street, and made my way into socialized medicine.

The waiting room was actually quite peaceful and not crowded, I noticed, as I walked up to reception. The woman at the reception desk smiled. I didn’t expect that. "Can I help you?" "Yes," I replied, "you see, I am an American—I guess you can tell—and I’m visiting family here—my wife is British—and we’re staying with our friend the vicar, and I have a sore foot, which I normally wouldn’t worry about but we’re going away for several weeks on vacation, and I called my health care provider in the U.S., and they told me to come in here and thought I should get an X-ray or something." (I wondered for a moment if it would help to tell them that I was a friend of the prime minister, but decided not.) "What do you need from me?" I asked hesitantly. "Just your name and address," she replied with another smile. "Oh ... Okay." She told me it would be about 10 minutes to see the nurse. "Yeah right," I thought to myself.

I settled into the waiting room chair, looked around at all the people who didn’t seem to be in any distress, and opened my book for a good long read. It was five minutes before the nurse called me in to a little office adjacent to the waiting area, which seemed to be an intake room. She was pleasant and professional as she asked me what was wrong, and how long I had felt the soreness. She gently examined my foot and then told me I would be called in to see a doctor in about 10 minutes. "Sure thing," I thought. So I went back out to the waiting room and settled in again to read my novel.

It was five minutes before a young woman appeared and called my name, "Mr. Wallis?" She was a young Asian doctor named Dr. Gillian Kyei. She was also very pleasant and professional, taking time to ask me lots of questions about how I might have hurt my foot, etc. She examined the injured foot carefully, told me that it didn’t necessarily look broken, but that we should get an X-ray to make sure. I waited in her examining room for a couple of minutes while she called down to the X-ray department to say that I was on the way. Then she came back and escorted me herself.

When I got to X-ray, I checked in by just saying my name and took a seat in the waiting area. Finally, I was going to get to read my book! But five minutes later, the technician came out to bring me in. She took her time with me, taking several different angles of my foot. When I was done, she sent me back to my young doctor, with another smile.

This time the wait was a full 10 minutes because, I later learned, Dr. Kyei was reading the results of my X-ray, which had already been sent to her computer. She showed me what looked to her like a fracture of my fourth metatarsal bone, but said she wanted to consult with the orthopedic specialist. I waited about 10 minutes more while she did that and so got a few more pages read.

Dr. Kyei then came back with the definitive diagnosis—my fourth metatarsal bone was indeed fractured. She went over their preferred treatments and my options with me. Normally, if this injury had just happened, they would put me in a cast to hold the broken bone in place and give me crutches. They were still happy to do that now. But since I had been already walking on it for over a week and the bone was still in the right place, I could also have the option to just using a therapeutic soft boot to keep the weight on my heel and off my fourth and fifth metatarsals. While the fracture was at the base of the fourth metatarsal, as she carefully explained and showed me on the X-ray, the pain was being felt lower down—across both my fourth and fifth metatarsal area. If I chose the boot, I could still swim with my kids and get around a little easier, but I would have to really try to keep my weight off the injured area. I chose the boot and she told me she would be back in a minute.

It was actually about two minutes before she got back, and I was getting nowhere with this novel. She handed me a very stylish black boot (so much better than other colors for fashion coordination), and gave me my final instructions—be very cautious about the foot, try to stay off it as much as possible but keep it mobile and flex it so the blood circulates, get another X-ray as soon as I get home and, of course, then consult with my home physician. Then she wrote me a nice long letter for my home doctor, describing their diagnosis and treatment. Dr. Gillian Kyei then wished me the best of luck, hoped I would have a great vacation despite my foot, smiled, and sent me back to the front desk.

"How can I call a cab?" I asked. "Oh, I’ll do that for you," she said. "Just take a seat over their and the cab will be here in about 10 minutes." As I sat there, I realized something. Nobody had ever asked me to pay. Everything was FREE, including my nice new boot. How about that? They think health care is a right for all citizens, and even foreign visitors like me. Amazing.

The cab came in five minutes. I thought I would tell him some horror stories about my experiences in the American health care system, but decided not to. I was back at Ann’s in just over an hour from when I left—with my letter, my boot, and my tale of smiling, pleasant, and efficient health care workers. And somehow I began to believe that back in America we weren’t being given the whole truth. And guess what? Ann tells me that David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, the biggest British soccer (football) stars, have had metatarsal bone fractures, just like mine. In about six weeks, I too will be back on the field, thanks to socialized medicine! And in the meantime, I will keep my foot up ... and maybe get that novel read.

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