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Surprise! You're crippled! 

My year of well-insured misery

Is the American health care system broken? Consider my story:

On Super Bowl Sunday, I passed the one-year anniversary of emergency surgery to repair tendons that ruptured in both my knees in two separate falls on the same day.

The first fall occurred on the rain-slick brick stairs outside my house. After wrapping the injured knee in an Ace bandage, I went to an emergency room. During my five hours there, I did not see a single doctor. I was X-rayed and diagnosed with a sprain despite my repeated objection that my knee was dislocated. I was treated like a cantankerous crazy person and told to leave.

Two hours later, that knee buckled, so I fell on the other knee and bounced back onto the earlier-injured knee. I later learned that ruptured tendons do not show up in an X-ray, so the failure of doctors to physically inspect my knee created the conditions of my second fall.

Then I languished nearly six hours in the emergency room at Piedmont Hospital in pain I cannot describe. I was refused repeated requests for pain relief until, apparently, I started involuntarily crying. I became enraged with a doctor who finally ordered some pain meds. She whimpered that she was overworked.

After two weeks in the hospital and a month at home in leg braces, I went to a rehabilitation clinic. It was a total waste of time. Every visit, two or three therapists would be working with four or five patients at once. Sometimes they sent me home after 10 minutes. But I paid my $50 co-payment, as I did two or three times a week.

I developed agonizing pains in my upper legs. The rehab therapists said I shouldn't be having the pains. My surgeon's office said the pains were usual. The rehab therapists shrugged and decided my primary need was to be stretched, instead of doing strength training.

Because of that, my leg muscles continued to atrophy. Finally, doing research on the Internet, I found that a primary symptom of withdrawal from one of the drugs I'd been taking was pain in the thighs. I readjusted the dose and the pain disappeared.

"Who knew?" one of the rehab therapists asked cheerily.

By this time I had incurred huge expenses on top of my insurance deductibles. Because my energy was so low, I could only work about half as often as usual.

My mother had begun her dying process. A doctor dismissively said she was lucky to have lived as long as she did after her stroke 14 years earlier. I was in grief as well as continual pain. I fell into the darkest depression of my life.

Still, I went to the gym daily and did leg exercises every workout. But my knee pain remained. When I saw my surgeon after six months, he was surprised I wasn't better but said to just "keep at it" and return on my one-year anniversary. When I returned a few weeks ago, still in frequent pain and unable to walk down stairs, I asked offhandedly: "At what point do I call myself permanently disabled?"

He said he'd be glad to fill out any paperwork I needed.

"That is not what I wanted to hear," I said.

"Give it six more months," he said.

My (excellent) primary-care physician insisted I get X-rays of my knees and a second opinion. The X-rays came back with no notation of serious problems. But I carried them with me when I went for the second opinion. That doctor viewed the films and immediately announced: "The problem is that your kneecaps have risen well above where they should be."

Of course, I wondered how my surgeon and the radiologist had missed this. This doctor told me I could have the surgery redone but it would probably not improve things. "As long as you're able to walk on level surfaces and get around without too much pain, I'd not have the surgery," he said. I was in shock. The last thing he said was: "Yeah, it's too bad."

Still, he referred me to a third doctor, a specialist in sports medicine – exactly what I asked to see when I began rehab but was denied. I try to be optimistic.

I should say that all of these doctors have been pleasant. And my injury, being to both knees, was rare. But this experience has made me acutely aware of all the complaints about health care in this country – the expense, the disregard of patients' pain, the difficulty of getting anyone to listen.

America's health care is now the worst of the industrialized world, even for those of us who are well-insured.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.

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