My back hurts a lot.
I’ve never felt pain this debilitating before. I had been camping in Lake Casitas and I awoke in my tent in such agony it took me 15 minutes to get from laying prostrate to a seated position, then to hobble around in my tent, making small advances to unzip the entrance.
I had been having back problems for the week prior, but was under the impression it was getting better. That proved not to be the case so I left my camping trip early and returned home to sleep in a firm bed. The following morning I had a single mission.
Get to a doctor.
I didn’t want drugs, I didn’t want some spine alignment. I just wanted a proper diagnosis to guide me on what to do next. Opposed to the plethora of varied stretches, heating/cooling suggestions, sleeping positions, and chiropractor referrals my friends had offered.
What I’m about to take you through is a bit of a story illustrating the frustrations of the American Health Care system. I will move as quickly as possible, but I promise you it has a point and it does connect to Torah. So bare with me, there is a pay off.
Once Upon a Tzman…
Things have not been great lately. Some writing projects I had hoped would make waves made hardly a ripple and I’m a bit lost on what to do next. Prior to the rippling, I had prayed harder than I think I have ever since childhood. I had called in all the kevana (focus/intention) troops for each of the daily prayer services and when it came to parnussa (livelihood) and shema kolenu (hearing of our prayers) I could feel myself praying from the deepest part of my soul and with every inch of my body. Davening with such intensity gives you a tremendous connection to Hashem. But it is also exhausting.
So when the opportunities I had hoped for did not present themselves, I really did try to hold on and not let myself fall into despair. But then the back pain started. I never realized just how debilitating back pain can be. Whatever will I had to press forward in my writing had evaporated.
Having studied in Israel for 3 months last year, the calculation of my income by the government meant I would no longer have my usual health care but would be put on Medi-Cal. For whatever reason, Medi-Cal assigns you a doctor and that is the only doctor you’re allowed to see. Upon calling the doctor, I was informed the earliest appointment available would be about 3 – 4 weeks.
This flew in the face of my “see a doctor today” agenda. Though I had found a different doctor who did take Medi-Cal and could see me that day, I would have to change my “assigned doctor” with Medi-Cal. Which I did. Unfortunately, the change does not take place until the beginning of the month (a week and a half away). I was then advised by the “assigned doctor” that my only option was to go to an Urgent Care facility. The nearest Urgent Care facility was almost 15 miles away. Sigh… But before leaving I called Medi-Cal once again to confirm that this Urgent Care facility was indeed where I could go and my coverage would be accepted.
To those not familiar with LA traffic, those 15 miles through the heart of the city would take about 30 – 45 minutes. The drive did not help my back. While hugging walls and clasping handrails I made way to the Urgent Care wing of the USC hospital.
After taking a number in the deli style ticket dispenser, I asked for a glass of water. The receptionist told me to ask the nurses inside. At this point my back was at its worst. The nurse asked me if I wanted ice or not and for some reason, when I answered “I don’t care,” tears started streaming down my face.
It wasn’t really because of the pain. Yes, my back hurt. But it had more to do with the fact that I had an overwhelming recognition of failure in my life. My writing jobs had not worked out as I had hoped, I had even turned down work to get my own scripts to the level I knew I was capable of delivering and now that had been rejected. So with my confidence shot, my financial stability in doubt, now my very ability to move and perform the simplest of tasks was in question. What if this was now the new normal? Or worse a sign of something life threatening? Yes, in retrospect these thoughts are quite absurd, but in the moment, without the guidance of an educated professional, that’s where the mind goes.
The nurse suggested strongly I should go to the ER to which I responded, “I just want to see a doctor. If I go to the ER it’s going to be hours for that.” She gave me my water, I composed myself, then returned to the Urgent Care reception desk as my number had finally been called. The receptionist, in her black scrubs and dark hair with dyed blond tips, ran my information. After a moment or so she informed me that their Urgent Care facility could not see me. That I had to go see my “assigned doctor.” I replied back that it was my “assigned doctor” who had directed me to the Urgent Care facility in the first place and that had been confirmed by Medi-Cal themselves.
The receptionist, in her black scrubs and dark hair with dyed blond tips, was quite insistent that other facilities and even Medi-Cal themselves “don’t really know how it works.” My options were that I could go to the ER downstairs or go up to the 6th floor and try to have my case heard by someone in administration. With my pain at its peak and my patience for getting into another explaining session waning, I finally conceded and went to the ER.
This blog post has gone long enough and I don’t think you need to hear the 3 hour ordeal that yielded neither a diagnosis from a doctor nor treatment from my time in the ER. Jumping ahead to afterward, I decided after all to go to administration on the 6th floor get an answer as to why I was not allowed to visit Urgent Care. After another 20 minutes of waiting I was finally greeted by an elderly woman with not the best command of English. We somehow sorted through my situation and she ultimately decided that was I fine to go to Urgent Care and that a doctor would now see me. I wasn’t amazed by the miscommunication of the system, but that this woman failed to grasp that I had already been to the ER and had been showing her discharge paperwork from said ER. Finally fully understanding the situation (as best as I can tell) the elderly woman with not the best command of English offered me consoling words about her own back pain struggles. After which I left.
And now after all that… I bring you to the point.
I returned to the second floor Urgent Care looking for the receptionist in her black scrubs and dark hair with dyed blond tips. Sure enough she was there. I so badly wanted to confront her, informing her of the 3 hours she had wasted of my time, that in her hasty condemnation of others she failed in the exact way she derided. I wanted to tell her that she was not only a problem of our failing American medical system, but embodied the mentality that was propelling its decline. But of course, I’d be far more passive-aggressive in my delivery.
But then, despite my falling out with Hashem, I couldn’t help but think if God is One and every moment of your life is tailored for you, often as a test, could there be meaning in this tiring and frustrating ordeal? Then I thought about the parsha. I won’t go into more detail (you can read here if you really want) than to say, Moses’s sister has died, his people are once again rebelling, he’s at his wits end nearing 40 years of travel, and for a moment, just a moment he gives into anger. And for that there are dire consequences.
It is a tool of the evil inclination to make us believe that this time doesn’t matter. This instance doesn’t count. That we deserve a break, that there are extenuating circumstances, that anyone else would have broken long ago and would be far more vile. But even though I had made many many errors that morning and was already in the mindset to “write off the day,” I couldn’t help but feel I was about to fall into a trap.
There certainly are times to call out a wrong when we see it. But before ever giving tochacha (rebuke), you have to be honest with yourself. What good is it actually doing? Is this really about correcting a wrong or is this really about making me feel better? Rabbi Yonah Bookstein put it another way by saying ,”Stop to think, in a year am I still going to be mad about this? If the answer is no, it’s not a reason to get angry.”
So with that contemplation I walked away, hobbling back to my car.
Thank you for the shout out Ben. The medimaze absurdity that is our health care system is one of the most frustrating parts of life in America today. We are the richest country on earth, but our health care system humiliates us, prolongs illness and hastens death. I’m not exaggerating. I am so proud that you didn’t take out your valid frustration on this woman, who is just trying to do her job and earn a wage that doesn’t cover her expenses. Might I suggest, humbly, that after your back feels better, we find a couple of other people in the shul who are equally fed-up with health care and see what we can do about it?
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PS – The other part about your being a failure – thats BS. YOU are a success story in the making. The fact that writing projects don’t work out – that’s part of the insanity of the entertainment industry, its a professional hazard – and doesn’t say a word about your skills, talents and abilities.
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