What it means to be an Australian – Part 2

Last Sunday, on our national day,  I blogged about the staggering costs of US healthcare as I reflected on what it meant to be an Australian.

Here is the story of my own personal encounter with the US health system last year….

Playing it Safe

While in Las Vegas recently, I spent more than $5000 in six hours. Now, before you Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegascastigate me for reckless spending, I rush to tell you that I forked out because I’m not a gambler — I was playing it safe. The hefty bill came from a hospital, not a casino.

En route to visiting my family in Canada, I was enjoying a quiet stopover in not-so-quiet Sin City. I first felt some pain in my right calf while running up the hotel fire-escape stairs (I know, I’m crazy), making me think muscle sprain, but within 24 hours the swelling became quite marked while the pain wasn’t particularly severe.

Given that I’d just endured a long-haul flight sitting in a cramped, cattle-class seat, I decided I couldn’t take the gamble that it wasn’t a DVT. Hoping for an ultrasound, I limped into a walk-in medical clinic, where the consulting doctor thought it highly likely to be a DVT and sent me to the nearest ER.

I grew up on US TV medical dramas, ER being my favourite. The series began in my second year of med school and I soon convinced myself it was a useful and legitimate study resource — a view reinforced when an obscure case in my fifth-year internal medicine viva was identical to the fictional one in a recent episode, allowing me to answer correctly and with confidence.

When I turned up to my first real-life American ER and discovered my treating doctor’s name was Mark Green (the name of my favourite character on the show), I have to admit I felt a frisson of excitement. It didn’t hurt that the real Mark Green MD was attractive, attentive and charming.

Disappointingly, this is where the similarities with the TV show ended. There were no patients miraculously brought back to life from asystole with CPR and a few jolts from a defibrillator, no complex surgical procedures performed by underqualified staff, no doctors and nurses embroiled in interpersonal dramas at patients’ bedsides, and not even a token lovable but disruptive patient with an entertaining form of psychosis. At least, not that I got to see.

It was, well, like an Australian ED, except that everything was bigger: the patients (the average BMI was probably over 30), the chairs, beds, artwork — and the bill.

My ultrasound was equivocal and the D-dimer negative, so an MRI was ordered. It seemed like a bit of overkill but, from what I could gather, MRIs are ordered for practically everything in the US: tension headaches, osteoarthritis, acute back pain, toothache, a broken fingernail.

Okay, perhaps not all of these, all of the time. It did the trick for me though, producing a lovely image of a second-degree soleus muscle tear without a thrombus in sight.

It looked a lot worse than it felt. I kept declining the analgesics the nurse tried to give me, unwittingly reinforcing her perception of the Australian stereotype. “I always thought you Aussie sheilas would be tough. All those snakes you have to kill and jellyfish that bite you. And the sharks.”

She paused, looking proud of herself. “Sheila is Australian for ‘woman’, isn’t it? I learned that on HBO. I just love learning different languages.”

I know the US health system has deep-seated problems, but my brief stint as a patient was a memorable and positive one. The staff were friendly, efficient and professional, and the facilities top notch. The only hurt was the bill. I’m not the first person to lose a fortune in Las Vegas but at least I was insured against the loss!


First published in Australian Doctor on 12th April, 2013 about my trip to the US/ Canada in Feb/March 2013.