Gallery H

Broken Teeth And Cataracts

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Wal-Mart Adventures: Waiting For Health Care Reform

By James Donahue

Arthritic knees have made shopping trips to stores more troublesome to this writer than they used to be. Fortunately, the local Wal-Mart has installed numerous benches for folks like me to use while our partners shop the store. Thus I have become a silent witness of many strange and sometimes humorous encounters.

This day an elderly woman dropped herself down beside me on the bench and struck up a conversation. Within moments, and without any probing on my part, I learned that she suffered from arthritis of the joints, heart trouble and a variety of other ailments that appeared to classify her among the walking dead. Yet she was cheerful and said she was glad for every day she was allowed to remain on this earth. I liked her attitude.

Within a short time her husband, a lean white-haired man with a large nose and steel-rimmed glasses arrived pushing a shopping cart. I would guess his age in the early to mid-70s. He hardly arrived before a second man, a large, burly fellow with a somewhat pointed head and unusually dilated eyes stopped to chat. He told us he was 61. It was obvious that they all knew each other and are old friends.

I mention ages here because the topic of the conversation among these people, and yet a third elderly man who hobbled up to join the group a few minutes later, was health. The third man announced that he had been to see his doctor that morning but that he was not happy with the outcome. He did not disclose his problem although the others in the group appeared to understand what he meant.

It did not take long before I knew the complete medical history of everybody else, however. The big burly man with the pie eyes suffered from glaucoma and cataracts and was taking some strong medicine to keep from going blind. The dapper white-haired man said he was blind in one eye and getting a cataract in the other one. He worried about having the cataract removed with laser surgery because he said a friend had it done and the operation did not go well. He said if this happened to him he would be blind.

At one point the woman beside me noticed that I was sitting quietly, listening to their stories. She said she supposed that I had my own health problems. I told her that she was right, but offered no further information. After a lifetime as an observer it seems that my position has not changed. I remained on the outside of that group, absorbing their story.

The bottom line to all of this was spoken by the woman’s husband. He told how he had been to see his dentist, was told his teeth were just fine, and charged $125 for the checkup. He thought that was a terrible price for a dental checkup. Then, to make matters worse, he said he chipped a tooth the very next day while eating his meal. He wondered what it was going to cost him to have that fixed.

He said he wished President Obama would hurry up and get his health care plan instituted so he could go to the dentist and not worry about how to pay for the visit. What remained unspoken was that with public health care, people could consider regular health checkups, dental visits, eye exams and cataract treatment, and tend to all of the other health problems suffered by the nation’s elderly.

Indeed, I thought, many of the older folks in America were lucky enough to have retired with some degree of health care, and all of us enjoy the benefits of Medicare. But few have dental or optical insurance at the time in our lives when we most need it. All those root canals and crowns our dental insurance paid for during our younger years are falling apart, our teeth are breaking off, and we are living with those broken, rotting roots in our gums, or trying to chew our food with no teeth at all. Sometimes those infected teeth make the entire body sick.

Our eyes are getting weak, we are suffering from cataracts, and there is no money to pay for proper treatment. A few hundred dollars for a cheap pair of glasses with plastic frames is usually within our grasp. But beyond that, when the eyesight fails, we just do the best we can.

The sad part of this story is that we are the lucky ones. The younger set is going without any health insurance, even with jobs. Those good jobs that offered health insurance benefits have quickly disappeared.

America is no longer a healthy nation. The universities that have raised tuition and other charges for higher education to extreme levels, lawyers who filed all those malpractice lawsuits against doctors, the insurance companies that charge outlandish prices for medical malpractice insurance, the doctors who overcharge their patients to cover the high cost of their insurance and their medical training, have driven the masses into the streets. If we get medical care now, we go to the emergency room and beg for it, knowing we can never afford to pay the price.

This, in turn, is driving hospitals right out of business. Without some kind of financial help, most likely from federal levels, we may soon reach a point where only the very wealthy can afford medical care of any kind.

And even as the health care issue goes up for debate in Washington, the big drug companies, the doctors, insurance companies and sold-out Republicans are doing all they can to block it. The anti-health care ads are already hitting our nightly television screens. The stakes are very high on the issue this time. It is a matter of life or death for most Americans who desperately need the system fixed.

And that is what I learned from my latest encounter at Wal-Mart.