Noting A Memphis Life Saved In India
September 13th, 2019
(published in the Daily Memphian)
My friend Willy Bearden has an interesting tattoo.
But then Willy is an interesting guy – filmmaker, photographer, writer, historian, frontman for the house band at Earnestine & Hazel’s, and most of all and informing all of the things he is – storyteller. He and I were making TV commercials together last week when I asked him about the tattoo. It’s on the inside of his left forearm, right below a foot-long, faded scar:
“स्पेयर पार्ट्स 01.17.11”
So he told me a story. I’d heard it before and I’d seen the tattoo before, but I had never connected the two.
Nine years ago, Willy’s heart was calling it a day, his arteries more blocked than Congress, his insurance gone with the recession, and his doctor calling for stents with a price tag at 85 to 100 grand. If that ended up being bypass surgery, Willy told me what he needed would have ended up costing $350,000 to $500,000. His doctor also told him that he could go to an emergency room and they would have to admit and treat him.
Willy told his doctor stronger words to the effect of, “No thanks.” He knew they’d chase him for the money, and that he would lose all he had and end up in bankruptcy. He went home and started his reasearch about options. That journey would take him to Bangalore, India.
He had triple-bypass surgery, and the vein used came from his left arm where the tattoo is, words in Hindi meaning “spare parts” followed by the date of the surgery, January 17, 2011. He was in the hospital for eight days and in Bangalore for 18 days. He even liked the food in the hospital and even his therapists had medical degrees. When not in the hospital, he stayed in a resort for a hundred bucks a day, meals included. Round trip airfare was about $1,500.
The bill for the surgery and the hospital was $9,000. Willy put it on his debit card. His surgeon remains a Facebook friend, and laughingly checked his translation for the tattoo.
And Willy remains alive and well. And like most of his stories and I hope mine, there’s a larger message.
Willy’s experience has been labelled medical tourism, and Patients Beyond Borders estimates that 1.9 million Americans will travel out of the country for medical care in 2019. I hate that label. Willy didn’t anymore travel to India for the temple tours and curry than families travel to St. Jude for Graceland and barbecue.
This country has the best medical care in the world, and only money and insurance makes it readily available with few and far-between exceptions like St. Jude.
This country has the best medical care in the world, and only money and insurance makes it readily available through the most complicated, incestuous, and self-serving delivery system in the world assuring and feeding its own ravenous appetite.
This country has the best medical care in the world, and only money and insurance makes it readily available in our glass and stone eponymous medical monuments in the suburbs – like Semmes Murphey, and the brand-new West Cancer Center and Campbell Clinic rising side-by-side where the money and insurance are.
This country has the best medical care in the world, and only money and insurance makes it readily available locally in our two primary hospital systems, Baptist and Methodist, whose indigent care policies belie their very names.
This country has the best medical care in the world, and only money and insurance makes it readily available in this state where rural hospitals are dying like their patients, and about 300,000 uninsured working Tennesseans have no help at all.
Yet our governor is applying for a Federal block grant to fund Tennessee’s convoluted version of Medicaid, and he admits that it won’t help even one of those 300,000 even one bit.
I’m a Memphian, and you and I should be sick about the whole thing.
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