The Country is Sick

It has been a week now since returning from my month in the States and of the myriad of wonderful conversations and experiences and reunions, one topic has stuck in my mind: health care. Maybe it is because I came back home to a letter telling me my application for a “cure” had been approved by the national health insurance. That means that I will be spending three weeks in a “cure spa” in the mountains near Salzburg exercising with trainers, getting physiotherapy, eating healthy, and learning to replace my bad old sedentary habits with better and healthier ones. And yes, the whole thing is covered. My copay comes to $9.35 per day.

There are other reasons that health care in the States has been on my mind. In conversations with friends and family, the subject came up often. A lot of us are nearing or at retirement age, slowly winding down our careers and making decisions about “the right time to go”. In the case of two couples, the husbands were working into their 70s – putting off retirement till the day their wives qualify for Medicare. Another woman wanted to stop working and had saved enough of a nest egg to do so – she just couldn’t afford the private health insurance in the interim. One woman who was basically self-insured through her own business talked about how much those costs ate into the company’s earnings. Two more women – one with a pre-existing condition and another with a special needs child – knew that losing their jobs would have more than mere ripple effects – it would mean a financially ruinous tsunami washing over them.

“People like the health insurance they get through their employers.” How many times have I heard that statement since the start of the health care debate way back in the Clinton era? 100 times? 500? 5000? And I have never understood it. I know very few people with 100% job security, so if the employer decides whether or not you continue to have a job, don’t they also decide whether or not you continue to have health insurance? Doesn’t that yoke you to your place of employment and limit your own freedom and self-determination?

The last school year was not the best for me. There were even times when I considered leaving – to the point where we had a mini family conference about it. It would have meant bridging the last two and half years of my professional life with other “unofficial” work (tutoring, translating, etc.), but what to do about health insurance was not one of the considerations. I find myself wondering now what my situation would have been, if I were on my own and in the States . . .

 

https://smartasset.com/taxes/wisconsin-paycheck-calculator#eOxo4LJPs8

I decided to make myself a fictional 57 year old single woman with no dependents, living in Milwaukee and earning $50,000 a year. A nifty paycheck calculator online told me that I would end up with $3,196 a month to live on. Ouch! That seemed pretty low. I thought Americans paid a lot less in taxes, but this was only slightly more than the Austrian equivalent of this fictional woman would take home. In her case, about $700 a month would be skimmed off the top to pay for her health care and pension.

 

From there, I went to the Healthcare.gov website. After first figuring out what “deductibles”, “out of pocket” and “copays” meant, I entered my fictional information and clicked on “See Plans”. Of the 24 options, here were two at the opposite ends of the spectrum:

The cheapest Bronze Plan – “only” $709 a month. (Gasp!) But if I understand deductibles correctly, I would have to pay my own medical bills up to the tune of $650 a month before the insurance ever kicked in. So . . . why am I paying the additional $709??

 

The best of the Gold Plans. If I’m doing the Math right, I could technically afford this one with my $3200 monthly take-home pay – that is, as long as I never go to a doctor. Or take any medicine. Or own anything requiring maintenance. Or go on vacation. Or eat out.

Again. I don’t understand.

People protested last year to save this system. They camped out at congressional offices and marched on streets with signs saying “Don’t take my health care away”. They clearly supported this system in which they pay what seems like exorbitant prices to keep insurance and pharmaceutical companies profitable. I assume many of their employers have to pay such high prices too. It must make the cost of labor a burden on their bottom lines, which in turn incentivizes downsizing, relocating, outsourcing and all of the other euphemisms for “You’re fired!”

Navigating this system, making financial or life decisions based on this system, being constantly worried about losing this system . . . that all must create a great deal of stress in people. Anxiety too. Sleepless nights. Depression. All things that can lead to other, more serious illnesses . . . but never fear! The pharma industry is on it! Whatever your problem is, they’ve got a pill for that. What’s that? You don’t know what your problem is? Well, here’s an array of possibilities to choose from . . .

I only watched about three or four hours of TV during my month in the States – but that was more than enough to get a picture of what is going on. Rachel would do her 20 minute A block without interruptions, but from then on it was a constant flow of commercials broken up by sporadic 3 minute news segments. And it seemed like a third of those ads came from pharma companies. So here’s what the experience was like:

Rachel tells me about an explosion during a Russian nuclear missile test and how the radiation is spreading in my direction.

Then a nice woman in a commercial asks me if I ever feel anxious. If so, I should ask my doctor for xxxxx which, in some cases, might lead to dry mouth or mysterious sounding “sexual side effects”.

Then I see a short report about an immigration raid with desperate crying children, after which

a pharma commercial guy asks me if I am feeling sad. If so, I could try yyyyy  (but I should watch out for such side effects as fever, confusion, uncontrolled muscle movement, decreased white blood cells, seizures, impaired judgment, coma, suicide or death).

The next news report is about a recent mass shooting by a white supremacist, followed by

another nice lady asking me if I am having “racing thoughts” and trouble sleeping. I should try zzzzz (but beware of tongue swelling, memory loss, and/or hallucinations). Her successor knows what I could take for my “restless leg syndrome”, but it might increase my gambling urges or make me fall asleep while driving.

In the final news report, I hear that the pwesident is leaving to go on vacation. He has done nothing in his 2½ years so far to combat the country’s widespread addiction to painkillers, but never fear,

there is now a treatment for OIC (opioid induced constipation)! Just watch out for nausea, vomiting, stomach tearing and constant pain.

 

I think most people -me included – have a touch of hypochondria (aka “Illness Anxiety Disorder” or IAD) in them.  Who doesn’t hear of some new disorder and think briefly “Ooh! Maybe I have that!” So I wonder what the cumulative effect of all these messages must be. And then to continually hear these gruesome lists of possible side effects which often seem to end with “death”.  It’s unbearable. Four or five more hours of watching this stuff and I’d have started tearing my hair out.

Which, thanks to a sign in a Chicago el train, I now know is an official thing: trichotillomania or “hair pulling disorder”.

The industry is working on a treatment for it.

——————————————

I appreciate living in a country with a social welfare economy, but that doesn’t make me a Socialist. I also don’t believe in Capitalism for Capital’s Sake. From everything I have seen, a healthcare system that is privatized and profit-driven has every inducement in the world to keep the country sick. As long as it continues on like this, there will be no cures.

 

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Day Ten Thousand, Nine Hundred and Fifty-Eight

About thirty-two years ago I was contemplating getting married, so I consulted “the bible”, and in particular, Chapters 8 and 10. After that, I insisted on adapting our wedding vows to “I promise to love, honor, cherish, and occasionally play Scrabble with you for as long as we both shall live.”

It turned out that “occasionally” meant once every quarter of a century. So it was only five years ago that I discovered, to my horror, that my husband cheats at Scrabble. (Or do you think that “Jeanhose” and “Krux” are words?) Thank goodness I won the game anyway. Two points less and I could be divorcée right now.

 

As it is, it’s my 30th wedding anniversary today, and sort of like last year, I spent most of it chauffeuring kids around, obeying the commands of my cleaning lady, and doing load after load of laundry. It’s now about 7:00 pm and I am all alone for the evening – unless of course my adopted refugee son pops in for some food. Daughter 1 flitted in from her trip to Malta and took off two hours later to spend her first night in her new apartment in Graz. Daughter 2 is at a concert in Vienna, with friends and strict instructions to send me a text message every two or three hours.

And the husband is off fishing in Sweden again.

However . . .

Being the person he is, he made sure that a surprise appeared in the kitchen this morning. I might just be the only wife in the world who un-ironically thinks a bag of Cheetos is the best anniversary present ever! (The fountain pen was nice too.)  But wait, there’s more! A half hour later my cell phone chimed.

Check out what my husband calls “our Weddingfish”:

 

I’m starting to think this guy might be a keeper.

 

Die Dicke Oachn

All sorts of little milestones and round numbers have been reminding me lately of time passing. My thirtieth anniversary is in less than three days. My sixtieth birthday and retirement(!) are in less than three years. My daughter graduating from high school made me feel – among other things – well, . . . . old. And what was the final diagnosis of my joint troubles of late? Apparently, I am just aging.

I have also now officially lived in this house on a hill outside of Loopyville for thirty years – since 1989 – so for more than half of my life.  In all that time, whenever we drove somewhere northward (and that was literally hundreds of times), our route took us through a little village and past a sign with an arrow and the words “Europe’s Oldest Oak Tree”. We never once turned off to look at it. That is, until a month ago, when the husband and I were returning home all refreshed and relaxed from our spa weekend. On a whim, we veered off toward the oak.

 

I can say with 100% certainty that it is the most un-touristy tourist attraction you will ever experience. It’s just a tree. In a field. With one little information sign. From that we learned that the tree was between 1000 and 1200 years old along with its height and diameter.

 

We also read that this tree had briefly made international news. After being struck by lightning in the 1970s, someone tried to save it by pouring concrete into the trunk. But that cure turned out to be more deadly than the original injury. In 1989 (the same year I was moving furniture and all my earthly possessions into my new home in a nearby village), a massive rescue attempt was made to remove the concrete and restore the tree’s natural drainage. And it was a success. Thirty years later, the oak is clearly thriving.

I walked around the tree, peered up into it, felt the old bark and thought about everything it had lived through. The ground beneath it had been ruled by the Magyars, the Romans, the Babenbergs, the Hapsburgs, the Nazis, the Russians, and the Freedom Party. It had survived Turkish invasions, two World Wars, acid rain, a lightning strike, Chernobyl, tourists with pocket knives and being called fat by the locals (“die dicke Oachn”, which means “the fat oak”). It had scars and missing limbs, but it was still going strong. It was clearly planning on sticking around for a while yet.

While I was contemplating all this, the husband took this picture – which I just love. Maybe because I look so young!

Reeling from Time-Out to Time-Out

 

So here’s a possibly original take on the classic “why I haven’t been posting lately” post: I have just been so busy with one getaway after another.

First there was the sick leave, which, if I am honest, (and now that the memory of pain has faded), was really kind of nice. I have several crocheted animals to show for it.

That lasted about a week until boredom set in and sent me back to normal work for a few days. The week after was spent with two colleagues and twenty kids between the ages of 10 and 15 in an unheated house on an icy lake in Carinthia. Crap weather kept a lot of us in the one warm dining hall / arts and crafts / common room for most of the time. I taught a lot of kids to crochet and carve hiking sticks and make juggling balls with rice and balloons while my two coworkers took care of sports activities, homesickness and conflicts. We shared the task of kicking boys out of girls’ rooms and vice versa in the nights.

Back home, there followed an abnormally  over-excited week of work, thanks to the fact that the sex education experts were coming on Thursday and half the school kids were in a permanent tizzy – until the workshop was over, that is. Thursday at 12:30 pm they all casually emerged from their daylong sequestration in a state of feigned blasé whateverness.

(Note to future self: schedule the sex workshop BEFORE the trip to Carinthia!)

The following weekend – last weekend – was spent with my husband in some long overdue twosomeness at a nearby spa – my birthday gift to him. It was really perfect timing. With a long work slog just behind him and a mammoth one coming up, this was his one chance to unwind and unplug for a few days. Experience has taught us that we don’t see much of one another in the last weeks of the school year. For us teachers, June is the cruelest month.

Upon arrival at the spa, the first realization was that he had forgotten to pack swimming trunks. He rejected my idea to simply buy new ones. He didn’t really want to spend time in the water anyway, he said. He would start his training for an upcoming mountain bike tour and take long runs instead. He checked his cell phone and email.

“Whatever you want,” I said, and secretly hoping that the spa would work its magic.

It did. By Day Three he was napping on a lounge chair by the pool.

June could now begin.

Back home again, I stared at my calendar for the upcoming month and became confused. It slowly dawned on me that – at least in my case – this year was as good as over. First off, three long holiday weekends all fall in June this year, so I only had 10 more school days – and those were mostly excursions and sports days and special projects. Written into my calendar were some concerts and fests, a recital, one play and a canoe trip. There was a day at the public pool. There was a high school graduation ceremony and a big family celebration. There was the last day of school and the sentimental ritual that includes.

June was going to be a breeze!! Or so I thought.

 

The way I see it, Life is not a pathway forward but a curve-filled trek, always spiraling back toward some earlier point in time, though maybe on a higher or lower plane. That idea is behind the name “circumstance” and the way my blog entries often tend to end at or near the place they started.

In the case of this post . . . I am back on sick leave. Whatever caused my hip problem (which is much better now) has wandered up to my left shoulder. I’m back on anti-inflammatory meds and have new specialists and tests ahead of me next week. I assume there are also some hefty antibiotics in my future and some physical therapy. Olga will probably be beating me up again.

On the bright side . . .

. . . my earlier experiences tell me the worst of the pain involved (with the exception of Olga) is probably already behind me.

. . . I assume I will be able to take part in all of the events in my calendar that any one-armed person could manage and that is most of them. The canoe trip is probably a no-go. Shucks.

. . . I have this new duck:

 

Sick Leave

I was just standing in the kitchen Saturday evening and talking to my daughter when a fairly intense pain suddenly flared up in my left hip. It came out of the blue and was strong enough to make the trip up the stairs a bit of a struggle. I muttered to myself, once again, about how it sucks to be growing older and hoped a good night’s sleep would take care of it.

On Sunday, I could barely walk.

Having gone through something similar with my shoulder a few years back, I self-medicated with some expired anti-inflammatory pills, checked my doctor’s office hours for Monday, and then called my boss with the potentially, probably, bad news. With three of my colleagues away as it is, my absence meant a lot of scrambling and improvising for the few remaining teachers.  But then, what else can be done? As my boss said to me when she called back later, my only job for the moment was to take care of myself. Health comes first.

Sunday night, in bed, my condition reached peak pain. It got so bad that I actually panted. At 2 am, I stumble-schlepped myself to the bathroom and back, took another pain pill ahead of schedule and then somehow managed to fall into a shallow sleep.

I had to wait till 1 pm on Monday to see my doctor. When she heard I was having yet another one of these inflamed joint bouts, she announced that she was going on a mission to get to the bottom of it. Over the next four hours I was pricked with needles three times, I gave up a substantial percentage of my blood supply, and I peed on demand. I also posed (almost) nude for hip and lung x-rays. I allowed Vaseline to be smeared on me repeatedly for thyroid, hip and breast ultrasounds. I was shanghaied into my very first mammogram. Finally, I was also informed that I am officially on sick leave until my doctor informs me otherwise. I was ordered to come back on Thursday with another urine sample and to take it very easy in the meantime.

Strangely enough, I came home feeling much better.

Two of my thoughts since have been that 1) a person in pain will do pretty much anything a doctor tells them to and 2) the Austrian health care system is something of a miracle.

Take the mammogram part, for example. That’s a procedure I have been successfully avoiding for decades, despite the reminders I get biannually from my insurer. But today, when the doctor’s receptionist swiped my insurance card, a notice popped up in her computer that I was eligible for the examination at no cost. She asked me if I wanted to get that over with too while I was there. It would only take an extra five minutes. Of course I said no, but my husband, who was there with me, intervened and said I should just do it. I was trapped. Whoever designed this breast cancer prevention program knew what they were doing – how to reach the resisters and rope in the unwilling.

Now, of course, I am happy that the long war within me was ended by this surprise attack.

My own doctor’s reaction to my condition also fits right in with the design of the system as a whole. One of the policies intentionally tries to maintain enough general practitioners and to distribute them around the country where needed. My doctor knows me well by now and she admitted that she was taking full advantage of my visit to check everything she wanted – because she knew it might be years before I showed up again. She ordered all the tests and examinations; she made sure I got them done right away at the nearby health center in the brand new, state-of-the-art radiology office. And because she ordered them, everything was covered. All the results will be sent back to her and she will decide on my treatment, if any, with a complete picture from all the various experts at her disposal.

 

Back at home, I started googling about the costs of all these tests in the States. Of course the information was all very complicated depending on where you live, whether and how you are insured and how much your co-pays are, but it was pretty clear that those four hours of tests could have set me back as much as $2000 dollars. In contrast, all I had to pay for that Monday was the prescription fees: a grand total of $9.

Maybe the greatest miracle of the health system here are the thoughts that never crossed my mind as I headed toward the doctor’s office in pain. Can I afford this? Can I afford to take a day off of work? What a gift it is that for everyone – and I mean everyone – such factors don’t even make it into the equation.

 

German, English, Norwegian, Scottish, Irish, and Roman

 

I’m back to talking chickens.

Loyal readers will know what that means: there has been too much NSFB (“not suitable for blogging”) stuff going on and occupying my thoughts lately. Add to that the fact that I also subjected blogworld to two political rants in a short space of time, making me feel like I have to make up for it somehow. I have been rooting around for a nice, easy, non-political topic I can spend some time on . . . now, let’s see . . . what could I write about? . . . I know! . . . chickens!

 

 “We’re going to be grandparents of three,” my husband said to me a few days back. He had just checked our third batch of incubator eggs with his special illuminator device, homemade out of a toilet paper roll and some tin foil. Of the six eggs, three of them had dark shadowy innards. It takes almost exactly 21 days for the eggs to hatch, so in about two weeks’ time, I will be able to tell you if he was right.

Our first attempt, some of you may remember, resulted in the deformed, short-lived Quasimodo and the equally doomed Fred, the German Reich’s chicken who was clearly too beautiful to live. Those two were accompanied for their short time by some hastily purchased Wyandotte chicks, all four of whom turned into roosters and, subsequently, three of whom turned into dinner. The fourth is the father of our current incubator batch. This time I am actually hoping for a rooster. I want to name him “Pete Buttig-Egg”.

Our second attempt at incubating was more successful – it produced four hearty Orpingtons who managed to survive the harsh winter in a small henhouse with an open door. They did it by sticking close together. By March we had three full grown hens and one rooster but, sadly, no eggs. For months I fed them, checked the empty laying box, and then informed them that they were a bunch of good-for-nothing losers. But then – on the very same day Mueller finally submitted his report to the aptly named Barr – one of them laid an egg:

Surely there will be more to come. There has to.

 

All this focus on progeneration naturally led me to other thoughts. What about me? Where do I come from? I still remember asking my mother about it way back in grade school when the topic of nationalities was first introduced into my consciousness. Just like Elizabeth Warren’s mother’s tale of a Native American ancestor, my mom had a theory of her own to tell:

“Well let’s see . . . you are German, English, Norwegian, Scottish, Irish and Roman. Pretty much in that order.”

“Roman?” I asked. “Where does that come from?”

Mom told me that her own mother was 100% English, but that she had dark hair and olive skin – so that probably went back to some Roman soldier from the Empire’s occupation of England in the first millennium. It seemed pretty feasible.

In defense of my mother, I assume now that she was being a little facetious and never thought I would go on to repeating that list of nationalities – including the last one – for the next two decades. Thank goodness there was no “Roman” box to tick on my college application form!

The mystery surrounding my heritage was further complicated by my elder sister who has spent years compiling a massive database of our genealogical tree. I only know a tiny bit of it, but I vaguely remember her correcting my version of our connection to the Mayflower and – more importantly – not being able to confirm the “Irish” part of my nationality list. This disturbs me greatly because I once distinctly heard the call of my ancestors while wandering around the peninsula of Dingle in Ireland. On the other hand, when I was in Rome a few years back, I listened for a similar call and . . . nothin’.

Fortunately, modern science might offer me a way to prove or disprove my mother’s and sister’s theories. My Cuban friend (whose mother told her she had some Chinese ancestry) did a DNA test through “MyHeritage” and got some surprising results. To cut to the chase, she now walks around feeling less connection with the Ming dynasty and more with the Massai.

Of course, after hearing her tale, I went online and ordered two kits for me and my husband. They have been sitting on a shelf for weeks, but I’ve decided that today is the day to force the hubby to swab. Once that is done, I will mail the spittle off. So . . . in about six weeks’ time, I will be able to tell you if my mother or sister was right. I’m curious to find out who, if anyone, will be exonerated.

 

 

Sacred Place

Twice a day, I walk Dog Four around the cornfield. I have even blogged about it, seeing as how it is a non-negotiable part of my everyday life (“What the Doctor Ordered”). About halfway along this route there is a “No Trespassing” that has annoyed me for three decades. One of the lovely things about the area I live is that all the fields and forests are legally accessible to everyone. The only fences around are to contain herds of cattle and they are mostly temporary. I like the openness of area.

So that yellow sign is an affront. Luckily it is on a chain which hangs so low that I can easily step right over it.

Beyond the sign is a beautiful and peaceful meadow completely surrounded by trees. There are some beekeeper boxes and an old deer feeder which looks slightly more slanted every year. One of these days it is going to topple, just like the hunter’s perch that used to be near it. A really bad storm took it out a few years back. It was nice to look at, but considering its purpose, I am kind of glad it is gone. There is also a sort of bench.

I often extend my dog walks by circling the edge of the meadow. I like to sit down on the bench, look out over the grass and trees, the rolling hills and mountains behind them, and think about stuff. Not problems or concerns, just random pleasant stuff. This is not a place for hamster wheel brooding. It’s a quiet, peaceful, flowery place, equidistant and at the other end of the world from my workplace hassles, the toilet brush and the daily pwesidential news onslaughts. It’s a place where for ten minutes a day, I can be unplugged and un-assailed. I can also be completely alone. Thanks, in part, to that yellow sign.