by Jim Marquardt
Like probably 95% of all accidents, it’s a mere split second of carelessness that lays me out for months. It happens on a Sunday afternoon, a week before Labor Day. Returning from a stroll on the beach, I’m walking along the top of the bulkhead when I lose my balance and fall about eight feet down to wet sand, hard as cement. The pain in my right foot is excruciating. On hands and knees I struggle up the bluff stairs to the house.
Thus I begin an arduous trek through the American healthcare system, at least from my perspective in the Hamptons. My wife Ann and I decide to avoid a long wait at the hospital ER and go to an “urgent care” office. The doctor comes in with the x-ray, “Wow! How did you do that? Don’t walk on it. See an orthopedist tomorrow.”
Monday, by 9:15 I’m calling the two orthopedists whose names we know. One doctor’s machine is still giving out the weekend message. The other’s receptionist says he’s not in today and he has no openings tomorrow. Period. We decide we’d better go to the hospital ER. On the way there, I call an orthopedist in Hampton Bays. He can see me Wednesday, two days away. I take it. At the hospital the triage nurse says they have an orthopedist on call but he’ll probably be too busy to see me. About 45 minutes later they take me to the “Fast Track Dept.” As a former ad man I smile at the name but it actually does turn out to be fast. The doctor confers on the phone with the orthopedist in Hampton Bays and agrees to do a CAT scan as well as x-rays. The fast trackers apply a protective splint and tell me to keep the foot elevated.
Driving home, I finally get the other local orthopedist. His receptionist says he can see me on September 14th. Today is August 31st. I tell her that’s too late to save my dancing career. On Wednesday, now four days after the accident, the doctor in Hampton Bays diagnoses a comminuted fracture of the calcaneous bone. That’s the heel. He shows me the CAT scan on his computer. He says I may need an operation and recommends consulting someone “who sees stuff like this all the time.”
I immediately think of the hospital in Manhattan where all the professional athletes go for repairs. Though I had heard some of its doctors no longer take Medicare, I spend Wednesday and Thursday calling surgeons there who specialize in the foot. One is on vacation. Another is booked through September. Another will call me back. I contact the offices of eight different surgeons and do not get an appointment.
My brother Charlie and my niece Jane both know people who know a surgeon at the Manhattan hospital and whether through their connections or simply because his staff is more responsive, I get an appointment to see him the Tuesday after Labor Day. Bring the CAT scan, says his assistant.
Ten days since the accident, Ann drives two-and-a-half hours to the East Side with me propped up in the back seat. The young doctor drops a bomb. “That disc you gave me of your heel? Well, it’s actually an x-ray of someone’s back.” Ann and I are too shocked to talk. When we were at the hospital in Southampton, they x-rayed my back to make sure there was no other damage. When requesting a copy of the CAT scan, I didn’t remind them that x-rays also were taken. The surgeon said it would help him decide the need for an operation. Notice, the doctor in Hampton Bays was able to bring up the CAT scan from the hospital in Southampton directly onto his computer, but the orthopedist we’re with in Manhattan couldn’t do that. Aren’t electronic health records part of the reform that Washington is struggling with? It’s now well after five o’clock. I say we’ll FedEx the correct disc to him the next day.
I don’t hear from his office until Friday, three days later and 13 days since my fall. They say I definitely need an operation, the scan revealed complicated fractures. He can operate on Thursday, Sept. 17th, exact time to come.
On Monday I go to the hospital in Southampton for pre-op tests and they turn them around overnight. Wednesday the day before the operation I call in the morning to learn the time. The woman in the office says a nurse will call me between 4 and 8 p.m. I say I have to know sooner, that if the operation is in the morning we’ll drive in today and stay in a hotel. I’m put on hold twice for long periods and have to hang up and call back. I’m tempted to yell, “Hey, I’m a customer!” Finally we get squared away. The operation will be late in the afternoon and we can drive in the same day.
Nineteen days after the fall, at the hospital a therapist briefs me on using crutches and a walker. A male nurse spends a long time going over my medical history. Medical records, again! The young surgeon stops by and mentions screws and plates and smoothing the joint but I begin to imagine a machine shop and I tune out. The anesthetist comes next and I address him as the “most important guy.” He smiles modestly but I really mean it.
The surgeon sees Ann afterwards and describes the great job he did. All I remember of the hazy post-op is a blonde nurse named Lola. I’m in pain for a couple of days but oxycodone (generic Percoset) relieves the worst of it. I share the bed with a tangle of wires and tubes and a button to push when the pain gets excessive. Worse than the pain is the problem that spinal anesthesia slows down bodily functions. At three in the morning I balance on one foot alongside the bed, watching traffic on the FDR Drive and hoping gravity will help fill the plastic jug I’m holding.
That’s my medical saga so far, nothing more boring than other people’s ailments. But here’s one important piece of advice. Be good to your spouse. When all others fail, including the medical community, she or he is all you have. If you’re not married, stay away from bulkheads.