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How I became a health care consumer instead of just a patient

Day 047/366 Outtakes - February 16th
Amanda Hatfield via Flickr, licensed cc.


When I go to the doctor's office, hospital or clinic, I don't think of myself as a "patient" in the traditional sense of the word anymore. I don't think of medical professionals as omnipotent beings oozing with right judgment and wisdom with my best interest in the forefront either. But it took a while to get here - decades in fact. Over the next few posts, I'm going to explore how I got to this point in my life for myself and my family.

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What is a healthcare consumer?

A consumer is someone who purchases a good or service for personal use. What could be more personal than health care?  I don't think most Americans think of it that way. We don't think that we are going out to "buy" a mammogram, or purchase a lab test. I think most of us think of these procedures as something that is done to us, or for us. But honestly, we really are procuring these things. This is true even if we use health insurance to cover the costs.


When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, this might have been more apparent because we paid for more things out of pocket. I went with my Grandma to the doctor just about every month. Grandma had had some kind of cardiac event in her late 50s while helping to put hay up into the haymow with her son. She finished the job before she finally went to the hospital. Then in her mid-60s, when I was 8 or 9 years old, she had a major stroke that put her in the hospital for a long time. I remember missing her terribly for many weeks until they finally let my sister and me visit her in a special "family room" at the hospital. Children weren't allowed in patient rooms at that time.

My biggest take away from that event was Grandma's determination to walk again and to get the function back in her hand. She squeezed a rubber ball with all of her might for hours every day and eventually wore the first ball out! She was very proud of herself. She walked again too, but she always had a pronounced limp. Yet she willed herself to do it and that's a lesson that has stayed with me throughout my life.

There were visits to her family doctor every month.  She paid for her office visits before she left the medical office. This wasn't something that was considered burdensome for them. But of course at that time office visits were around $20.

I remember spending endless hours with grandma in the doctor's waiting room. So much time that I was able to get through most of the Uncle Arthur Books, In fact, my earliest memory of Bible stories came from the Children's Bible at the doctor's office.

After waiting for hours, a short but pleasant visit with the doctor usually ensued where they took my Grandma's vital signs and talked for a while. When we were all done, there was always the necessary trip to the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions.

Grandma had gobs of pills to take. An entire shelf in the kitchen was devoted to her medications and she took handfuls of them every day. But they never really made her better. The only real progress she ever made was with the work she put in with her walking and squeezing the red rubber ball.

Then suddenly in 1978, when I was 18, she had another stroke. I went to the hospital one morning by myself to visit her. I was shocked at what I found. She was delirious and hallucinating. She didn't know me at all and tried to bribe me to untie the straps holding her arms down. This frightened me very much. I had never experienced anything like this before and I certainly had never seen a loved one in this condition. On the way home I stopped by the doctor's office because I wanted to talk to him.

I was prepared to camp out there to see him - after all, I didn't have an appointment and I was used to sitting there for a long time. But to my surprise, he took me right back to a room immediately and basically told me that my grandmother was dying. His words stunned me. I was totally unprepared for such a prognosis. I'm a little fuzzy on the events as they happened after that. I remember racing home and telling my family about Grandma's condition and what the doctor had told me, They were all shocked as well. It was as if I dropped a bomb on the household because we were simply clueless.

My mom sprang into action. She started getting second opinions and talking to the nurses. I also remember someone at the hospital telling my mother that they were surprised by all of the medications my Grandmother was taking, especially since some of the medications counteracted others.

That was the first time in my life that it ever occurred to me that physicians can make mistakes and that sometimes they might prescribe a therapy or a medication that just isn't the best thing for you. It had never occurred to me before that a physician my grandmother put so much trust in could be so inept.

Grandma spent the spring in the hospital and the summer in a nursing home. She died that July just after my sister's graduation from high school. She was 75.

Certainly, with her cardiovascular issues, she had a shortened lifespan. But this incident planted a few seeds of distrust in my mind when it came to medical care, although those seeds didn't grow to bear any fruit until much later.








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