Sunday, August 24, 2008

Socialized Medicine is Exciting!

In honor of Michael Moore's movie SICKO that's getting tremendous attention everywhere, I thought I'd share a personal experience of my own. I just got home from the most amazing experience, it's called..... (drumroll)... SOCIALIZED MEDICINE!!! It was so exciting.

About 2 weeks ago I slammed my knee running for the train (late as usual). The concrete step crashed into the middle of my kneecap, and I could barely bend it for 2 days. Although it improved, I was worried cuz it was still hurting sometimes. I didn't want it to heal weird, and start throbbing every time there was a rainstorm, or something like that. So I asked the lady at my foreign-students dormitory where I could get it checked out. She gave me a list of doctors in our neighborhood (about 15, all covering different specialties). We agreed I should go to the orthopedic surgeon; "no appointment is necessary, just show up" she said. I went at about 5 p.m. today on my bike.

Oh my goodness!!!!!! It was about the most divine customer-service experience of my LIFE! Dr. Maeda's office was a little drab, but functional and clean. Not luxurious-looking like hospitals in the U.S., with lots of fake plants and plaques with donors names. Just wood-panel walls and old magazines. I gave a written description of my problem to ease the language barrier, and after filling out one short form (basically contact info only) and handing over my government health insurance card, I took a seat.
SIDENOTE: Did you catch that part? GOVERNMENT HEALTH INSURANCE CARD!!! It is a cute blue affair that comes with a free plastic cover. I got it the week I arrived in Japan. Fresh off the boat, new immigrant, terrible Japanese. Still, I qualified for inclusion and was so happy to finally be fully insured I hugged and kissed the dude in the City Office, jumping up and down and yelling as he sweated in his polyester shirt. It was the best experience of my first month in Japan. But I hadn't had a chance to use the card until today...

So Dr. Maeda called for me from behind a door. Only wack thing about the office: the walls don't touch the ceiling! So I guess they don't care about patient privacy. Everyone can hear everything, so if you have something embarrassing I guess you write it down and slip the paper across the table, like a bank robber.
Anyways, I sat down and put my purse in the basket conveniently provided for this purpose. Dr. Maeda is a cheerful, tanned Japanese Santa Claus type. I wish I took a picture of him. He was laughing and practicing his English on me: "You run for train! Haha! Is dangerous! Don't you listen to warning in station? Haha!" After a few minutes of poking and prodding my knee, he said "We do x-ray now."
He took 2 x-rays and I waited another 5 minutes. Then he called me back into his office. "No break! Just contusion! Haha!! No jogging please!" He thoughtfully looked the word "contusion" up in his ancient dictionary while I was waiting. There was no interpreter but we got along ok with my so-so Japanese and his enthusiastic English.
He called the nurse to put a medicated stretchy patch thing over my whole knee, and cover it with a short white netting thing. Wrote a prescription for more of the disposable patches and sent me on my way with a laugh, saying in Japanese "If you were younger it would have healed faster! Haha, just kidding! Stop running for the train, ok? Haha!" I was glad to provide him with a source of hilarity for the afternoon, and stepped out of the office smiling. I sat back down on the bench to wait for the bill. I had been reassured "it won't be too much!" but I had no idea what to expect.

Soon the secretary called me up. "Forenbaum-san?" She returned my health insurance card, and gave me a new laminated one to use if I return to Dr. Maeda's. Then the bill: $13.24 (JY 1,610). That's it!! I'm on the "30% plan," which means the government pays the other 70% of the office visit. That includes 2 x-rays, meeting with the doctor, and getting one patch applied. No appointment, no waiting, excellent service, an immediate diagnosis, everyone's friendly. The whole affair took 30 minutes, out the door.

As for the prescription for the patches, those of us in from the medical hinterlands called the United States know that getting a prescription filled can be the most painful part of being sick. I remember as a kid waiting for hours in the Kaiser pharmacy, in a packed waiting room with screaming kids, dope fiends in rehab, people with rashes, and lots of coughing. As I started to leave Dr. Maeda's, I was grateful I could put off filling the non-emergency prescription for the knee patches. But the secretary told me: "There's a pharmacy just around the corner. Across from the 7-11. Take this there." I hopped on my bike. "Feel better!" she waved as I pulled away.

At said pharmacy, I walked in and handed the paper to dude. He took it in the back. 4 minutes later, emerged with my stuff. Grand total? $2.80 (JY 340). 2 weeks of treatment, silver plastic bag, my receipt. I'm dumbfounded, but the pharmacist is looking at me like I stole something. "Uhh, do you need anything else?" "Uh, I guess not..." Nutrition posters and bottles of Shiseido shampoo line the walls as I walk out.

Riding my bike home, I felt re-energized. Enthusiastic!! Healthy!! When did I last feel that way leaving the doctor's office... Maybe it was the warm reception I received (despite being a grammar-mangling foreigner) or maybe it was the unknown drugs in the stretchy patch thing. Or maybe it was the fact that my life wasn't interrupted by this minor injury, and society seems to agree that pro-active care for my knee is a pretty good idea. That's calming. I pedalled down the hill to do some grocery shopping. I'm not worried about my knee, or any other part of my health, and can focus on my work and life.

Nina Fallenbaum
Kanagawa, Japan