Do Whatever You Can
For the first time in 45 years, I was admitted into the hospital last week. Ever since right after I returned from the San Diego convention in late July, I suffered from an increasing case of dizziness, mental confusion, and blurred peripheral vision. Not being an idiot, I noticed that this new illness was replicating in great measure the dreadful symptoms of West Nile Fever, which I first contracted in 2003. That realization caused me endless grief, however, as the common wisdom among the medical community here in Boulder (which is one the leading hotspots for West Nile research in the entire world...) was that it was impossible to catch West Nile a second time. Upon describing my symptoms, I was informed repeatedly that your first illness with West Nile places anti-bodies for the virus in the bloodstream, which then precludes you from ever being able to get it again. That being the case, every person I contacted in the medical community, including my personal physician of the past 28 years, told me to just go away as my symptoms could not possibly be real.
While being told repeatedly that my illness was imaginary was incredibly depressing and frustrating, I do have to say that in hindsight that it also taught me a valuable lesson. Basically I discovered that doctors, when confronted with any presentation of illness that does not fit into a quick and neat category that they've dealt with before, will do their best to get rid of you. If you've ever watched the "House" show on TV, in which the doctors do their best to unravel mystery illnesses, you might come away with the impression that this somehow represents real life. Nope, not a chance. There was not one single doctor with whom I met for the first 35 days of my illness who didn't try and get me out of his/her office as quickly as possible. One elderly female doctor, whom I've known for 20 years, actually even asked me flat out "So what do you want me to do about it?" Simply put, they were far too busy trying to keep up with overwhelming caseloads of patients who had definable symptoms, to want to bother with someone who fell out of the spectrum of their experience.
In the end, I was finally able to meet with a doctor who specializes in West Nile. He had also blown me off initially as a crank, forcing me to wait for 3 weeks for an appointment because there was "no way I could have West Nile a second time." Upon finally examing me, however, he quickly changed his mind. Maybe it was the fact that I couldn't open my eyes because light hurt me so much, and the fact that I was curled up in a fetal position on his examing table from the headache that I could only describe as a 9 on a scale of 10, that did the trick. Whatever the case, he immediately held a conference with the other resident West Nile expert in his clinic, and they quickly came to the conclusion that I had, indeed, contracted the illness for a second time.
What they deduced had occurred is that I was re-infected with West Nile via a bite from an infected mosquito in late-July, and that my body's immune system began fighting the new infection by flooding my bloodstream with increasing levels of West Nile anti-bodies. While that might be a good outcome with most diseases, West Nile anti-bodies seem to also be toxic in their own way, causing the same symptoms as the disease, just without the potential for death. You feel like you want to die because of the unbelievable pain in your head, but this sadist of a disease just keeps hurting you more and more each day, without ever allowing you to get better. Having nothing else to give me aside from painkillers, the West Nile specialist decided to try an experiment on me by having me take a trial run of Methylprednisone, a powerful steroid. The goal was to somehow reduce the encephalitic swelling in my brain, which was the root cause of my agony. The steroid didn't work for a couple of days, but on the third day things finally started to turn around. I cannot even describe to you how happy I was when I woke up that morning, and felt like opening my eyes. When you've been getting progressively worse for 37 days, any improvement is unbelievably joyful.
Sadly, however, that was the day that I received the phone call that my long-time friend, Steve Swink, had died. Steve went into the same hospital where I was treated, on the same day as I was released, and died 24 hours later. The official death report is that he died from pneumonia brought on by complications of the flu, but what I genuinely believe really killed him was a lack of insurance. Like so many Americans, Steve was unable to obtain affordable health insurance, and was thus not able to avail himself of professional health care until he was so ill that no emergency treatment could save him. There's no reason why a healthy 55-year-old man with a penchant for hiking and other outdoor activities should just drop dead. Sure, it does happen. But in Steve's case while he had been ill for a couple of weeks, he held off on going into the hospital earlier than he did because the thousands of dollars per day that it would have cost him were simply beyond his means. Simply put, I think that inability to pay cost Steve his life.
So where do these two cautionary tales leave us? Well, certainly not within the usual scope of this column, which is supposedly about comics, and the comics world. Given that Steve Swink was the very first Mile High Comics employee, however, I thought that there was at least a some measure of connection. Steve volunteered to join me within three weeks of my opening my first store, in Boulder, Colorado, in 1974. We had many great adventures together, some of which I've written about in past installments of this column, before he returned to his hometown of Baltimore in 1981 to run Geppi's Harbor Place mall store for several years. He then returned to Boulder, working first for the legendary organic grocer Alfalfa's, and then as manager of Time Warp Comics, the successor to the Boulder store that he helped found in 1974. Over 100 people came from all around the country to bid Steve farewell, which gives only a small indication of how much he was admired and loved. I shall miss him very much...
Returning to the subject of health care, I want to close out this month's column with a couple of cautionary thoughts. First, don't assume that anyone in the medical community is going to go even the slightest bit out of their way to help you if you become ill. Simply put, you will get just as much care as you insist upon. Being polite and restrained will get you ignored, and you may well die as a result. Second, do whatever you can to get health insurance. The idiocy of the current system in the USA is obvious to damn near anyone, with only those with health insurance, and those who have absolutely no assets, being able to get care. For those of modest means who do not have insurance, it is having to make the insane choice between getting health care and going bankrupt from the resulting charges, or doing without. I have no answers to this awful dilemma, but since I do sincerely believe that it cost my good friend his life, I am more than a little peeved with the medical and insurance communities. It's hard to know who to be mad at, however, as this is a vexing problem we that need to resolve as an entire community, before even more of our friends die from a lack of affordable health care.
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