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Jul. 17 2010 - 11:45 am | 636 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

Life Without Health Insurance

Erythematous rash in the pattern of a “bull’s-...

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A few weeks ago I took a trip with my girlfriend to lovely, lovely Julian, California — a lovely little mountain town where there are lovely, lovely wine tastings and just the most lovely apple pies you’ve ever eaten. The town has a lovely gold-rush era feel with a small, but dense main street and plenty of lovely open space. Just outside of town there are lovely fields of lovely tall grass filled with lovely, lovely ticks that latch on to my genitals.

It was a lovely time.

Actually it was. Julian is a beautiful, reasonably priced alternative to Napa, charming romantic and all that. But a tick to the balls has a way of putting a damper on a perfectly good trip – especially when you don’t have health insurance.

I’m from Boston, where Lyme disease is a real problem. Friends and acquaintances that have come down with the disease suffered months upon months of misery, and in some cases permanent neurological damage.

Coming from Boston, I also happen to know that tiny deer ticks are the ones that carry the greatest risk of spreading the disease, and that the longer the tick stays attached, feeding, the grater the chance of infection. My tick was definitely tiny, with the exception of his blood-engorged body. He’d been feeding on me for two days before I caught him.

Not good.

They say the obvious sign of Lyme disease is a telltale bull’s-eye-like rash that appears on the site of the bite after the tick is removed. Now, trying to remove a tick that has its head buried fairly deeply inside your genitals is neither an easy nor pleasant task. By the time I got the sucker off, lets just say there was some carnage. Impossible to tell whether what I was looking at was a bulls-eye, a scab or Godknowswhat. It’s not a particularly pleasing aesthetic canvas down there.

It seemed like I didn’t have a bulls-eye, but I couldn’t be sure. And on top of that I was getting headaches and a wickedly stiff neck – two of the 5 billion signs of Lyme disease.

So much for self-diagnosis.

The disease is treatable if caught early. But, to catch it and treat it I would need a doctor. But how does one do that without health insurance these days? Well, there are three things a person could do in my predicament: go to the emergency room to get an immediate test for Lyme disease, but that struck me as a bit excessive and potentially costly; I could schedule an appointment with a private doctor and pay out of pocket; or I could go to a free clinic and get checked out. If it looked bad, maybe my lab results would even be covered. I went with option number three. Trust me, if you make what I do you’d take door number three as well.

In my relatively large LA County city there is only one free clinic, run by a local church. It meets once a week in the church’s upstairs offices. It’s open for about three hours after working hours. I got there five minutes early and was the fortieth person in line.

The bureaucratic task of processing us was left to a handful of geriatric volunteers. They were slow as could be, but let me tell you, those of you out there who don’t respect your elders better recognize these people are the only ones willing to volunteer to help you out. When they go, so goes a whole lot of earnest people willing to help others for free. The generations that came after them don’t seem to have it in them.

That said, the nurses that volunteered their services were all young, and man were they caring and earnest…and hot. Seriously, guys, girls, it was ridiculous. If you were trying to cast a wildly vapid reality TV show about sexy nurses living and working and Los Angeles, you could just set up shop in the free clinic. No need to look anywhere else.

I waited for about an hour before I was brought from a waiting room to the treatment room and was processed by one of the kindly geriatrics. 15 minutes later one the nurses came to interview me about my situation. She was very polite and smiley as I described the situation with my tick-mauled genitalia. She said she’d get me one of the doctors.

The place was now absolutely packed, and it took several minutes for a doctor to become available. There were several private nooks carved out in this room with drapes hanging in front of them for private examinations. By the time a doctor did come to see me, none of these spaces were open. “So, what can I do for you?” he asked. “Oh” he replied curiously after I told him.

He led me down a long hall to the church reading room, the only empty room on the entire floor, which just happened to have no doors. Just a massive open space that anyone could storm right into.  Statues of Jesus in various states of terror and pain on the cross were the room’s primary decorations.

“Drop your pants,” he said.

Now, I’m definitely not Christian, never have been, but there’s something strange about presenting another man your testicles for inspection in front of stigmata-stricken Jesus.

Anyway I dropped my pants and the doctor immediately began to look confused. He seemed to have no clue what he was looking for. Something tells me Lyme disease isn’t a common ailment people bring to the free clinic – especially in Southern California.

After about five minutes of genital inspection by both the doc and Jesus, he finally said he needed to consult the head doctor of the clinic. The doctor said this, not Jesus.

Anyway, we left the church reading room and headed back to the main treatment area. The doctor sat me at a desk while he conferenced with several other doctors nearby. They were laughing quite a bit and drawing pictures.

Several minutes later, three doctors came over and showed me a clipboard with two pictures of ticks – one round and robust the other tiny. I pointed to the tiny one.

“Well, that is the type of tick that carries Lyme disease in this area,” the head of the trio told me.  “I can give you the anti-biotics and you can take them preemptively. But that’s gonna cost you.”

Getting a lab test would be even more expensive. Back where we started.

The doctors assured me that the bulls-eye is very noticeable, even painful, when you’re afflicted with it. They didn’t think I had the disease, but I should come again if any kind of rash developed. I said I thought I’d be fine.

I haven’t noticed any rashes or advanced neurological damage yet. At least no more than usual.


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  1. collapse expand

    Hi..wanted to warn you. I got Lyme disease (and babesiosis) in Los Angeles (or so I assume, living there for years). No doctors thought I I had it, and I didn’t think it existed much in the area myself (believing the doctors).

    I got really, really sick over the course of a year after. Many doctors, crazy symptoms, etc. I had been very healthy and in great shape. I got…very ill. After 2 years, a doctor really thought I should be tested for Lyme and a couple of related tick-bite things…and they all came up positive. I HAVE health insurance and it’s cost me a fortune, because of the late diagnosis.

    It is not an exaggeration to say it wrecked my life. I had to sell my house, lost my career, etc. I’m not trying to overly-alarm you or be a kook about it…but if you think there’s even a CHANCE you have it, get early treatment or beg, borrow, or steal the money to see a doctor who knows about it and get EARLY treatment.

    I know 4 people who’ve gotten it since I got sick. And not nutso-hypochondriac types. People with the rash, positive blood work (lyme blood tests suck, are only about 60% accurate).

    I wouldn’t want anyone to go what I’m going through. I’m still not better, and if I’d been diagnosed and treated early, I would not be in the nightmare I’m in.

  2. collapse expand

    i have lived in 3 different countries and never had health insurance you americans have a crazy system over there .its sounds like you pay more tax than we do here in australia so what are the tax dollars being spent on?tax cuts for the mega rich and war it seems.i would reccomend you get rid of the present day political parties and vote for something new those 2 parties have been there for ever and look at the state of your country no decent public health service’ beggers on the street huge national debt

  3. collapse expand

    Take the anti-biotics you kook, we don’t want you to get sick.

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    'Nobody walks in Los Angeles' you may have heard or read or said to yourself absentmindedly. This is entirely untrue. Plenty of crackheads walk in Los Angeles. Any number of schizophrenics too. And so do I. I'm a journalist who came up through the alternative weekly world, first as a staff writer with the LA Weekly and then as a senior editor of the LA City Beat. I currently write for the Los Angeles Times Magazine among other publications. When I'm not writing I wander, usually by foot.

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