It wasn’t a heart attack.
A few nights ago, I woke up about 3:00 a.m. because of pain in my chest. It hurt to breathe. Sitting up or shifting my position didn’t seem to help. Twisting from side to side made the pain worse. I couldn’t isolate the pain to a specific set of muscles, which seemed like a bad sign. I didn’t have pain or numbness in my arms, which seemed like a good sign.
I debated. Was I having a heart attack, or wasn’t I? I tried to convince myself that it was muscle soreness from a change in my weight lifting routine two days earlier. But why would that have taken so long to make itself felt? Maybe it was stupid not to go to the emergency room to make sure. But an ER visit would easily cost $1000 or more. Should I, or shouldn’t I?
Finally, after worrying for a while, I did what any sensible 21st-century guy in my position would do. I got out of bed and went to look up “chest pain” and “heart attack symptoms” on the Internet.
The more I read, the more it seemed that my symptoms were not indicators of a heart attack. Eventually, I read that, if chest pain was aggravated by twisting from side to side, it was almost certainly muscle pain rather than a heart attack. Reassured, I went back to bed and managed to get a few more hours of sleep.
Over the next couple of days, the pain decreased. The next time I went to work out, I could clearly feel that it was indeed muscle soreness. In this case, my decision not to go to the emergency room had turned out to be the correct one.
As I’ve thought about this incident since, however, I’ve realized something that surprised me. One of the most important factors in my decision not to get my chest pain checked out was the cost. As I lay in bed wondering whether I could be having a heart attack, I kept thinking, “But it would cost over $1000 to go to the ER.”
Unlike too many other people, I have health insurance. It does have a high deductible, so the first $2500 of whatever a trip to the hospital might have cost would have come out of my pocket. Again unlike many people, I could afford to pay that cost. And still, even in my fortunate circumstances, cost was one of the reasons I was reluctant to get medical help for a potentially life-threatening condition.
Thinking about this gives me a glimpse into the level of stress and fear that people who can’t afford health insurance must live with on a daily basis. People like the 20-something son of one of my friends, who is struggling to get a new business started. He’s a hard worker, and someday he’s probably going to be rich, but right now he’s just barely making it and doesn’t have the money for health insurance.
He just had to have emergency surgery. The procedure was relatively minor, but it still left him with some $15,000 in medical bills. He’s negotiating with the hospital to see if he can get the bill reduced and make arrangements to pay it. In the meantime, his parents have decided they can afford to pay approximately $130 a month to get an individual health insurance policy for their son.
Parents frequently help kids get started in the adult world by buying them cars or helping them out in other ways. It may make a lot of sense to consider health insurance as one of those “other ways.”