It's been a painful week, by that I mean that I've been in pain for most of it and found myself in the doctor's office twice. I should warn you that this blog comes with a disclaimer: it contains some graphic details of medical issues and also quite a bit of pathetic whinging that readers of a fragile disposition may wish to avoid...
If I'm being completely honest, I've been pretty scared about going to the doctors here because there's still so much I don't understand - unlike the UK, Americans pick their doctors like you might pick a pair of jeans - off the peg - finding one that best fits the requirements. Eventually, you can end up with a whole selection of doctors, it's not one size fits all. You can go to one place for a family GP, another for what my Dad might call a 'lady doctor' and any amount of others, depending on your particular ailment. The only thing you have to check is that they are 'in network' i.e. covered by your health insurance.
Then of course there's the cost. We have health insurance, but that doesn't stop me worrying about racking up thousands of dollars in medical bills just for an ingrowing toenail - I've heard the horror stories. So when it became obvious that I had something wrong with my arm, I did the only sensible thing anyone in my position would do: I ignored it and hoped it would go away by itself. It didn't. After several weeks of increasing pain, things came to a head when I realised I couldn't lift the kettle to make a cup of tea. This was clearly now a medical emergency! I had no idea what was wrong, except that I had whacked my elbow on the banister of the stairs whilst vacuuming a few weeks ago. Was it possible that, for more than a month, I'd been walking around with a fractured arm? Well yes, it was -according to the lovely doctor I saw who immediately sent me to have an X-ray on the offending joint.
In the end, there was no fracture, just a possible damaged nerve that will eventually go away (see, I told you!). In the meantime, lots of ibuprofen and a sling was prescribed. I decided to take matters into my own hands (well, hand, because the other one hurts too much) and tossed the sling after about an hour and assigned all tea-making duties to the three men in the house, (along with all ironing and vacuuming) during what will, I'm sure, be a very long convalescence.
But that wasn't the only medical drama of the week. Just twenty-four hours later, I was in an emergency care centre in chronic pain. This time a suspected kidney stone was ruled out in favour of a serious bladder infection. I cut a sad figure in the waiting room - writhing in pain and sweating whilst clutching a urine sample that I'd bought with me in a plastic pot that had previously contained hot chili sauce - which seemed fitting considering the fiery hell I'd experienced producing it! To add insult to injury, my sample was deemed un-sterile despite my assurances that I'd run the pot under the hot tap. Back through fiery hell I went.
So what did I learn about the American health system during my 'research'? Firstly, that 'shopping' for a doctor seems strange after years of just going to your local health centre and grabbing whatever appointment with whoever you can get. Also, I'm used to sitting in a waiting room knowing I'll have to wait long enough for me to make a real dent in 'War and Peace', but the wait time for each appointment this week was no more than ten minutes - barely long enough to write a tweet.
The other thing I find impressive is the use of technology that actually works. You can book an appointment on-line, thus missing the joy of being told you are the 400th caller in line and of course, you also get to bypass the interrogation by the 'friendly' receptionist (yes, I am passing blood. Yes, I do think I'm dying). Not only that, but any prescription is emailed direct to the pharmacy of your choice. You just rock up (or in my case, stagger) and there it is.
Paying for my antibiotics, I braced myself for the worst, but was pleasantly surprised when I was charged just $3.80! There's also no doubt that the drugs here are fairly spectacular. I took one pill and within hours there was no need to bite down on a stick while I peed. Too much information I know, but I hadn't been in that much pain since giving birth.
But when all is said and done, despite the efficiency and choice afforded by the American health system, Britain's NHS is precious and something that I will never take for granted. To be honest, healthcare made it into the top three reasons* why we know that our American adventure is just that - an adventure that has a time frame and is not forever. But to each his own, there are plenty of expats who feel differently and I'm so grateful for the thorough, unhurried care I've received here so far.
Hopefully my research into the American health system is over, at least for a while. I've certainly been reminded of where my pain threshold is this week and furthermore, it's put me right off chili sauce.
* The other two reasons were pickled onion flavoured Monster Munch and Strictly Come Dancing.