I came across a group of Americans who had queued for two days and nights to get some dental or eye care, in a pop up clinic in Appalachia. The working poor, who can’t afford the health insurance for their eyes or teeth, and living with pain and headaches for sometimes years. The clinic is non-profit, funded through private donations, and there is obviously a desperate need for it. And all the while the Republicans are blithering on about ‘Orwellian’ healthcare. Watch US television, and marvel at how it seems 80% of the ads are from insurance companies nimbly pronouncing long drug names and the endless side effects. A woman carrying a huge plate of food addresses the camera: ‘My fibromyalgia muscle pain is REAL. ‘I’m f***ed.’ (The last bit was Sarah Haskins.) And who wants the horrifying side effects of being old? So when I choose drugs for osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, I choose drugs with dynamic first syllables – like Re-clast. Because it re-strengthens my bones and makes them re-sistant to fracture. And I’m re-eally gullible. There follows a long list of side-effects. May cause lowered immune system, cardiac failure, low blood pressure, headaches, spinal lumps, achy breaky pelvis, tooth decay, hairy middle, Alzheimer’s, weight gain, weight loss, light-headedness, sudden death . . . .
Back in Blighty, I remember my miserable early dental experiences. Despite mum thinking that sugar was the devil, I kept needing fillings. Only years later did I learn that dentists were paid to fill teeth, and after my dentist fixed a few broken fillings, he cheerfully told me that I never needed them in the first place. I was, however, novocained up to my eyebrows so could only gloopily manage a ‘grrrr’. Not free but £50 and yes that’s not a small sum but in the USA, a filling costs between $170 and $200 per filling, and a root canal is about $700. Considering how much sugar and acid in soft drinks is consumed in the US, you won’t be surprised to hear that 92% of adults have suffered tooth decay.
Earlier this year, I was yanked into hospital with severe abdominal pain and bleeding. After being attached to an antibiotic drip for a few days, I had what the doctor cheerfully referred to as a ‘top and tail’ or gastroscopy and colonoscopy (another friend calls them The Bottom Inspectors from Viz). On the day itself, four people were looking after me. In the US a colonoscopy would cost about $3000 and a gastroscopy, up to $10 000. Some of the newer cancer drugs can cost up to $60 000 A MONTH. And that’s just the drugs. It doesn’t count lab tests, hospital visits, and blood tests. I’m not surprised to hear that some sufferers choose to die, rather than struggle on in huge debt which will be passed onto their relatives. If a sudden serious illness costs such big bucks then no wonder US citizens ignore their eyes and teeth.
It hit me hard because a couple of years ago, I woke with a stabbing pain in my right eye. A contact lens wearer I was conscientious about washing my hands and using disposable lenses but I still managed to get a nasty infection. Moorfields Eye Hospital found this infection so fascinating, I had doctors sticking their head round the door to have a good look at this Endophthalmitis with fluffy pigmentation which made it sound like something out of the Night Garden instead of a serious fungal infection. I know! And in the eye! And I wore daily disposable lenses. So after several days of blessed eye heroin and having my eye held open like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, my eye healed. It still has a scar and I’m even more myopic in my right eye than my left, but Moorfields saved my eyesight. I was so grateful I l am leaving them money in my will.
The NHS for all its flaws is one of the very best things in the world. Nobody should be crippled by debt when they become ill. Let us fight for it.