Finding out about wisdom teeth the hard way

In my 23 years of life, I’ve had health insurance for only 2 of them. Growing up, my Dad made just enough money so that I didn’t qualify for medicaid, but not enough to be able to purchase insurance. Despite this, my parents never denied me needed healthcare, charging everything to our version of health insurance: the credit card. But now, as a young adult watching my parents try to unbury themselves from a mountain of strangling medical debt, I’ve resolved to not let the same fate befall me. My version of health insurance? Do not go to the doctor until I am 99.9% sure I am dying.

This was working fairly well for me until last year. I was relatively healthy most of the time, and was astounded to learn how many things would go away on their own with no antibiotics.

Then, in the fall, a few months after moving to a new town for school, a bad flu knocked me to my feet. And since I had been off my asthma medications for over 4 years due to the prohibitive cost (not of the drugs themselves, which I had been on since I was 6, but of the doctor to write the scripts), I began to wheeze badly.

I have pretty bad asthma. The kind where simply laughing will leave me gasping for breathe. Most bad asthmatics will tell you that there is a fair amount of anxiety that goes with this. Breathing is rather addicting, and the memory of a couple bad childhood attacks that had sent me to the emergency room can still send me into a panic if an attack starts and I don’t have an inhaler nearby.

I’ve learned that most of the time, I can simply hold my inhaler, drink water and hot caffeinated teas, and sit in a steamy shower, and by keeping the panic attack at bay by knowing that I have the medicine in my hand if I need it, the attack will simply pass on its own. This time though, because the source, my flu, was not passing, this tactic wasn’t working. I brought the inhaler to my lips, depressed, and……. a tired puff eeked out. My inhaler, that I had milked through 4 years, was exhausted.

Struggling to breathe, I tried to remain calm, and started to call pharmacies to try to find some tubing for my nebulizer, as I had a little bit of liquid albuterol left for that, but no tubing- only to find that now even the tubing needed a doctor’s prescription. I checked my bank account, and saw that after paying my rent I had only $62 in it. Enough to buy medicine, but not enough to see a doctor.

And just like that, all my composure disintegrated. All alone in a new city, 3,000 miles away from my family, I curled up in a ball on the floor shaking and crying, unsure what to do. Through labored breaths and tear filled eyes I haltingly dialed my Dad’s number and wailed my predicament through coughing fits. He did his best to calm me down, listened to me breathe, and told me that if it got any worse I was to call for a cab and go to the emergency room.

After we got off the phone, I sat on my floor drinking tea, tears still streaming down my face, scratching my itching throat and chest, trying to figure out if my wheezing and coughing was life threatening, or just horribly uncomfortable. All this, for absence of a $4 inhaler. For the first time, I began to view my lack of health insurance as a serious problem, instead of something I joked about whenever the issue came up.

Before I could make up my mind, a strange number, with my old area code popped up. It was my childhood physician, whom my parents had called after they got off the phone with me, and he had agreed to fill a script for a 3 day inhaler supply to get me through this attack.  My friend drove me to the pharmacy, and gasped in my medicine as soon as I got my hands on it, relief finally coursing through my body, panic fading, and the adrenaline rush from the albuterol starting to make me shake. Sometimes, being an asthmatic feels a lot like being a drug addict.

After this happened, I made some big decisions, and applied for and got a full time job with benefits. This required me to cut my course load in half, but I never wanted to live through the panic of not being able to access care for my asthma again.

2 months later, I began to develop a tooth ache in the back of my molars. I started to become afraid that the wisdom teeth I had been praying would come in gracefully on their own had finally reared their ugly head. I didn’t yet realize how ugly this would be.

When the pain got worse, I peered into my mouth with a flashlight, and confirmed a  swollen red lump covering half an emerging tooth. I hadn’t been to a dentist since I was seven, after a night time game of man hunt left me tangled in a rosemary plant, with a chipped tooth, after flying over my aunts garden fence, but my benefits, due to start in a month, included dental coverage, and I figured I could pop Advil and wait it out until then. I was looking forward to having health insurance, and was planning a smorgasbord of medial visits- an asthma doctor for inhalers, a obgyn for a pap smear, and an eye doctor for new glasses. I clicked off the flashlight and added ‘Dentist’ to the list.

The next week, on a Friday, I was called into the office and laid off.

I walked home with my tools in shock. In pain, and filled with anxiety about the future, I went straight to bed.

I woke up in the middle of the night in a lot of pain with my face feeling tight and funny, and a pile of drool on my pillow. I stumbled to the bathroom to discover that both cheeks were swollen, giving me an appearance of a chipmunk. This time, I couldn’t open my mouth wide enough to get a good look at what was going on. With a horrendously uncertain financial future there was no way I spend any of the only savings I had gathered over the two months, $400, and my last paycheck on a doctors visit until I had another job. And heck, I reasoned, plenty of sinus infections, and even pink eye, had gone away without antibiotics over the years; maybe this tooth thing would too. But as I grimaced at my appearance in the mirror, this line of logic didn’t feel too convincing.

It took 36 hours for the fainting to start. When I woke up from the last fainting spell, just minutes after I had last fainted, covered in urine – I started to feel like being 90% sure you were dying was close enough, and got a friend to drive me to the emergency room.

The emergency room doctors checked out my heart, gave me an IV, doped me up and started me on antibiotics, and ferried me straight to their emergency dental clinic as dawn broke, where the kind dentists assured me that yes, if untreated this infection could kill me and my visit was therefore not  wasteful of me, and that in a few weeks when I was feeling better I could come see if I qualified for financial assistance, before massaging my jaw as wide as they could get it and ripping out two of my wisdom teeth.

The other two were still infected, but my gums were so badly infected around them that they wanted to try and clear the infection with antibiotics first. And so home I went, packed with gauze, to live off of vicodin, antibiotics, and smoothies for a week.

But first, I got a dry socket, a common and very painful complication when infection is involved, and wound up back in the dental clinic for a dressing.

It took 3 weeks to get all my teeth out and clear away all the infection.  When I was finally well enough to make it back to the hospital under my own power, I showed up with my financial documents and discovered that being laid off was possibly the best thing that had happened to me in years, as it had put me 200% below the federal poverty limit, and therefore I wouldn’t be on the hook for the bill. Being destitute never felt so good.

Ridden of all my ouchy teeth, I’m back to tackling the world. And after watching some documentaries on dental care in America, I’ve realized just how lucky I was that my local hospital had a dental clinic.  Also since then, my dad developed an abscessed tooth and had to get it pulled. He had to pay $700 at his local dentist to get it pulled. Or rather, he went $700 further into credit card debt.

I’ve also seen the bill, which the county covered, for my extractions, e.r visit, dressings, pain killers, and antibiotics. It tops $3,000. This amount was 4 times my available line of credit, and three times my net worth at the time of the incident.

And so despite all the unnecessary pain I endured, that could have been prevented with simple, generic, antibiotics, delivered when the problem started had I had access to affordable dental care, I am glad that I went through these experiences. It has only been through this that I have come to realize just how desperately affordable healthcare is needed in this country.