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Of provident kidney stones, health insurance and a CT Scan that may have saved my life

Posted Jan 02 2012 1:48pm

me-in-tux-web As we bid farewell to 2011 while ushering in the new year, some thoughts about health care my own emerge. I underwent major surgery this last year, having had roughly 15% of one kidney–or, more precisely, the cancerous portion of one kidney– removed. I chose to blog about the experience , chronicling the process from the onset, back when the tumor was initially thought to be a kidney stone or a cyst. But found early, it was small, they say they got it all and that it had not spread. I was lucky. A relatively rare form of the disease (roughly 50,000 cases per year), the survival rate for kidney cancer is not great because it is largely asymptomatic and is not generally tested without a family history for such.  Often, by the time someone wanders into a doctor’s office with complaints of an aching lower back or bloody urine, the tumor has grown to the size of a baseball, the cancer has spread, and the prognosis is not optimum. My tumor was found, as is so often the case, “incidentally” as they were looking at something else.

And that something else has me thinking; without it I’d be walking around with a ticking time bomb firmly ensconced and concealed in my kidney.  Which brings me to July of this past year when I awoke torn by excruciating pain from what I was to later discover were two kidney stones. Wave after wave of fortunate pain brought me to the emergency room. A CT scan discovered the stones–and something else– that ultimately turned out to be that cancerous tumor approximately 2.2 cm, lying in wait.

And there’s the rub. I had health insurance. Without health insurance I might have still gone to the hospital–the pain was immense– but I would have refused the CT scan.  I know of what I speak. A lack of health insurance is a state of affairs and a mindset that is distinctly different from that of having health insurance: as one deprives Peter to pay Paul “home medicine” takes on new meaning. And if forced to see a doctor, one minds the bottom line always ready to refuse treatment, especially avoiding diagnostic tests such as x-rays, CT scans and MRIs as they are the well traveled road to poverty if not bankruptcy .

And there it is. Without health insurance I would have refused the CT scan which may well have saved my life.

Instead, I ultimately had one of the nation’s top surgeons (the brilliant Dr. Paul Russo, most recently described by Maureen Dowd in the NY Times as “exuberantly blunt”) at Sloan-Kettering pluck the ticking time bomb from my body, while saving the affected kidney and me.

In the hands of a less skilled surgeon, my entire kidney may have been removed ( it’s easier ), and even if alive I’d have spent the rest of my life at a  increased risk for hospitalizing events from chronic  kidney disease, heart disease, and even hip fractures. The bill for my stay and surgery was roughly $27,000; my co-pay merely double digits (thank you Cigna).

And as I sit here reflecting on my good fortune and the providence of kidney stones timely sent, I cannot help but think of all those men and women across America without health insurance (or with junk insurance) who are left to face this coming year with health issues and hard economic choices each day–choices which will lead many to practice “home medicine” when faced with excruciating pain and the hidden harbingers of disease. Choices which will leave prescriptions unfilled. Choices which will lead many to refuse that costly x-ray, CT scan or MRI which might have saved their lives.

There but for the Grace of God–and a job with good health insurance.

And that’s not hyperbole: it’s a new year; it’s estimated that 45,000 people in America will die in it due to lack of health insurance.

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