One of the biggest complaints about the American health care system is tests that are both expensive and needless. This is a report from the front lines of one expensive test that saved me from lots of grief.
I'm almost 500 miles from my home in Boulder, Colorado, passing through the little Southwestern Colorado town of Durango. Fewer than 20,000 people live here, and I didn't know any of them.
But I had a stomach ache that started at dinner Wednesday. By midnight I was feeling bad enough that I looked in the Yellow Pages for a 24-hour pharmacy where I could buy an antacid. I struck out.
Reluctantly, I realized that the only place I could buy something that would counteract stomach acidity was the local urgent care facility or hospital emergency room. So back to the Yellow Pages I went. Since the local urgent care closed at 7 p.m. my only choice seemed to be going to a hospital.
I thought that the doctors and nurses there might laugh off my trivial symptom. Instead, they treated this stranger with disheveled hair, hiking clothes, and a Hispanic-sounding name with the utmost consideration and professionalism.
About 1 a.m. yesterday morning I met the emergency room physician, Russell Hill, M.D. He patiently asked me about everything I had been doing and listened carefully.
"I get concerned when a stomach ache lasts six hours," he concluded. My stomach ache had started six hours earlier.
Still, I was surprised to hear what he recommended -- a CAT scan with dye. I know that a CAT scan (short for Computerized Axial Tomography) is expensive. The machine costs more than one million dollars and each scan costs thousands of dollars.
All this for a little stomach ache? Of course, I didn't say that out loud. Good thing too.
So Dr. Hill phoned the on-call radiology technician, who had been asleep at his home. By 2 a.m. I had been CAT-scanned, and then we had a short wait for a service in the Midwest that has doctors who are specialized in reading this type of film.
The news wasn't good. Instead of a simple stomach ache from too much acid, a part of my small intestine was twisted in a knot, blocking waste from leaving my body.
Dr. Hill got on the phone again, this time calling another on-call physician, Robert Desko, a surgeon who could operate on me in the larger regional hospital a few miles away. He said that he would operate on me in the morning, and he did.
Yesterday morning he cut open my stomach and untwisted my small intestine that was stuck on my omentum. As far as I know this is one of the few ailments of modern Americans that diabetes doesn't cause.
I'm still at the hospital and will be recovering here for a few more days. I have the most attentive nurses imaginable, a private room, and high speed wi-fi for my laptop computer. But I also have a new-found appreciation that all these expensive medical tests that our politicians are talking about aren't always needless.