Editor’s Note: Since Mr. C is out recovering from bypass surgery—and since this is our annual “Top Doctors” issue—it seemed like the right time to re-run this classic “Mr. Chatterbox.” It was originally published in April 1992, but alas, not much seems to have changed when it comes to the country’s healthcare problems.
I know I promised that I wouldn’t discuss my recent rectal abscess, but it seems that in an election year such as this, I would be remiss if I did not. Thanks to my surgery and hospitalization, I have gotten an extraordinary glimpse of our healthcare crisis, and I’m afraid I must report that the naysayers are correct: It is a mess. As a service to the voters, and in order for them to make a more informed appraisal of the issues, I have put together this list of reasons why our healthcare system is such a disaster.
No. 1: Who controls the TV? You know the problem: You’re stuck in a double room with some stranger and there’s only one TV. Who gets the clicker? I foolishly ceded this right to Frank, my roommate. He was having problems with his veins. “Watch anything you want,” I told him. “I brought along this wonderful book about British history and I plan to finish it.” Boy, what a mistake. When you are in as much pain as I was, British history is not the answer. So Frank would go through all the channels and I would be thinking, gee, there’s a lot of good stuff on, and he would end up watching cartoons. I couldn’t believe it. I was forced to watch cartoons for three days. My only consolation is that he wasn’t into Home Shopping. Furthermore, Frank would wake up in the middle of the night and start calling for his wife. “Doris?” he’d call. “Doris?” “Doris isn’t here, you stupid old man,” I’d yell back.
The morning Frank was released, he confided to me that his first stop would be “The Club” (by which he meant the VFW Hall), where he planned to have several drinks, and then go home and sit in front of the TV, watching, presumably, cartoons, and smoking, something he wasn’t allowed to do in the hospital, although he kept trying. Anyway, Frank was replaced by Mr. Brown, an incredibly old man who slept all the time and had only one leg. His prosthesis was kept nearby, leaning against the radiator and still wearing a white sock and Hush Puppy. I was very clever this time. I told Mr. Brown and his wife that if there was anything they wanted to watch, just let me know, thus clueing them in on who was in charge here. Fortunately, Mr. Brown slept all the time.
Problem No. 2: Distinct atmosphere of pain and terror. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of checking into a hospital, knowing that even though you feel fine at the moment, in a couple of hours you will be vomiting your guts out and wishing you were dead. Even if something interesting happens, you will be too miserable to appreciate it. You tend to brood about what has gone wrong and how bleak the future looks. I remember how I once woke up in a hospital in Mexico City and couldn’t remember who or where I was. I started to get panicky that I might be a Chinese peasant who was real poor and had to ride around on a bicycle. Then, fortunately, I realized I was thinking in English, and was able to figure it out from there.
The only good thing is the painkillers. I got my choice of a pill or a shot. I usually took the shot in spite of the initial discomfort. The nurses were shockingly stingy with the stronger medications and made you really beg. Fortunately, after I began the projectile vomiting I could get anything I wanted.
No. 3: Not enough room for flowers. I would like to thank all of you who sent flowers. I was very touched. I realized for the first time how dependent the florist industry is on hospitals and saw it in a whole new light. Why, those people must take the money home in shopping bags. Everybody got flowers, even Frank—from someone at the Club, the bar manager, probably. Worst new trend: those mylar balloons. I’m afraid they’re here to stay.
No. 4: Odd procedures at odd hours. It took me a while to get accustomed to the Blood Lady, who showed up in the middle of the night and drew samples. But she was nothing compared to the time they came at 5 a.m. to weigh Mr. Brown. There’s something about waking up a grouchy, one-legged 80-year-old man and trying to weigh him that suggests the Three Stooges, and I must say the medical team did it justice. They were doing OK until they remembered the catheter.
Finally somebody remembered that they had a special scale in the form of a chair, so they went off to search for this, leaving poor Mr. Brown to moan piteously in anticipation of what was to come.
No. 5: The food.
No. 6: Those gowns.
No. 7: Fellow patients very old. If you think the people in Sarasota are old, you should see the people in Sarasota’s hospitals. Doesn’t the younger crowd ever get sick? Everybody on my hall was ancient. It was almost as if they had a special ward for crotchety old people and that’s where they stuck me. By accident, of course.
No. 8: Mennonites get sick, too, and actually go to hospitals. I always thought Mennonites would have some “thing” against 20th-century medicine and give their sick home remedies. But my hospital was full of them. They are indefatigable visitors, something I cannot say for my own friends, I’m afraid. The few who did come stood by the door all the time, shifting their feet. Charlie Huisking claimed he came, but that the nurse wouldn’t let him see me because “it would be an unpleasant experience.”
No. 9: Prices are a joke. It sounds like you’re buying real estate. In the operating room they asked if I wanted general anesthetic or a “spinal,” which causes you to “doze,” not quite asleep, not quite awake. My first question was, “Which one is cheaper?” (It turned out they cost the same, so I opted for “going under.”) One of my friends recently had a nose job—it does help—and it ended up costing over $10,000. For 11 hours in the hospital! He also had a hair transplant (though not at the same time), but that was wisely priced by the strand—the more you bought, the more you got. Now he rather wishes he’d bought more. But he couldn’t afford it! And the first day he came back to work all the saline solution they injected in his scalp shifted and he looked like the Elephant Man. People would walk in his office and start screaming.
No. 10: Doctors flaunt wealth, yet skimp on chairs in their waiting rooms. When I was there last Tuesday, this old lady in an ankle cast had to stand for 20 minutes, waiting for a seat. I thought of offering her mine, as I find sitting down terribly painful without my little doughnut pillow, but that’s what the doctors want you to do and I won’t play their games. A woman I know (and many of you know her, too) is married to a lawyer and very bitter about it. If she’d held out for a doctor he’d be pulling in $700,000 a year and they could move to Longboat Key. She insists that this is what doctors in Sarasota make. Well, I asked my doctor about this and he just laughed and laughed and said it was more like $600,000.