Holiday stress can be costly–literally

Holiday stress can be costly, literally.

I woke up in the middle of the night gasping for breath. I have a touch of asthma and a small degree of cold weather-related allergies, so that in and of itself is not all that new. What was new, is that I could not catch my breath. At all. My chest felt as if someone was sitting on it and try as I might I could not get a lungful of air.

When you get to be my age, nobody takes anything for granted. When I was 20 it was just a cramp. Now it might be a blood clot. In my 30’s it was just a headache, now it might be a brain tumor. Indigestion? Now it might be a heart attack. Getting older is not for sissies.

Sure, the holidays are stressful, there is no doubt. But how stressful becomes the question. Over 30 years in the restaurant bar business and I take it as a given. I know it’s going to be stressful, so I prepare. I try and exercise, eat right, get massages. And maybe I self-medicate a little. The old joke goes: what’s the difference between a bartender and a psychologist? A bartender can prescribe. But stress is insidious. It sneaks up on you. Denial, busyness and demand can make you overlook the obvious.

The breathing thing went on for about an hour and seemed to be getting worse. My heart began racing and could hear the thump-thump-thump of it beating in my ears. And still I could not catch my breath.

I called the advice nurse listed on my insurance card and he recommended (considering my age) an immediate trip to the emergency room.

I have not been to the emergency room in a very long time. My old insurance company used to have me go there for every ailment. Got a cough? Go to the emergency room. Have a fever? Go to the emergency room? Need a prescription? Go to the emergency room. My $10 copay was all it ever cost.

Since then I have gotten better and better insurance (my wife’s company has excellent benefits). Our copay has gone up, but what hasn’t?

I arrived at the Emergency Room at 2 AM. Seeing how it was a mid- weeknight I was the only person there; I was admitted immediately. Blood pressure and temperature were taken, and an IV was inserted into my arm. A quick EKG detected no heart problems which were confirmed by a chest X-ray. Still the symptoms continued.

“Are you under any stress?” asked one of the attendants.

“No more than usual,” I said thinking of the busy holiday season.

“We don’t see anything wrong with you,” they said, not together, but one after another.

A half a dose of anti-anxiety medicine was administered via that IV. Within 20 seconds all my symptoms had disappeared.

“I don’t have anxiety,” I said. The doctor just sort of shrugged and tilted his head sideways.

I was discharged shortly thereafter feeling somewhat foolish. I had spent an hour and twenty minutes in the emergency room in total.

The bills started coming about two weeks later. All in all, my late-night trip to an empty Emergency Room totaled about $7500. The equivalent of almost two month’s salary for me. I was there for 85 minutes, which translates to about $90 a minute!

At least I have insurance, I thought. Turns out that through a complex set of obtuse maneuvering my insurance only covered about half of it. The final bill came the other day. I have 90 days to pay before it goes to collections.

Immediately after receiving that bill I felt a tightening in my chest, and I found it difficult to catch my breath. My heart began beating in my ears and my fingers started tingling. This time I made some chamomile tea and scheduled a 1½ massage.

I was there for 85 minutes and afterwards I felt much better.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

-“Full coverage” is usually a misnomer.

“It’s not stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it,” once posited Dr. Hans Selye, the first doctor to demonstrate the existence of biological stress.

-“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers,” once said
Fred “Mr.” Rogers.

-A dollar a minute seems like nothing compared to $90 a minute. And ironically the benefits can be exactly the same.

-“Benefits” now there’s a word that could use some exploring.

-Where’s Mr. Rogers when you need him?