Counting the cost

IT’S been five weeks since I broke three bones in my right hand, and this is the first story I’ve written two-handed after some great free treatment from our public hospital system.

Our public health system isn’t perfect: For some specialist tests you might wait a year or more.

Important but elective surgery waiting lists average two to three months, and there are areas of women’s health like endometriosis and reproductive health that are underfunded, misunderstood and often misdiagnosed.

But show up to emergency with your hand mangled and fingers sticking out in crazy directions and you can expect a pretty smooth ride.

I broke my hand down at Beatty Park one night. It was dark and I tripped over a small sign that instructs you how to safely use the park equipment.

Before the pain had even kicked in, I was worried about what this would cost me.

My private health insurance is very limited: About once a year I get to send my insurer a specialist’s bill so they can tell me it’s not covered because of some obscure clause buried in the appendix of a product disclosure statement.

I knew an ambulance ride could cost a week’s wages, so dizzied and barely clinging to consciousness I got my brother to haul me off the grass and drive me to Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital.

• Voice journo David Bell in hospital as the sedatives start to wear off.

It was my first time in emergency: I was ready to get my bank card out at the front desk, the same as a GP visit, but all they wanted was my Medicare card.

With a few numbers punched into the system, I was X-rayed, given pain meds, gassed and had a team of three people manipulate my three broken metacarpals back into place to put in a temporary cast.

The next morning I was back at Charlie’s to be seen by a nurse, a doctor and then a plastic surgeon, who fiddled with my hand and described me as being in “exquisite pain”.

They told me most injuries of this type are caused by angry men punching walls and unnecessarily clogging up emergency rooms, so maybe they were a little more sympathetic because mine wasn’t deliberately self-inflicted, but everyone I met was a delight despite their clearly massive workload.

A day later I was back and waiting for them to fit me into surgery between emergency procedures.

Two plastic surgeons, two anaesthetists, and two theatre nurses (I think that’s a minimum of 44 years of university between them) got to work, pushing wires through the marrow of the broken bones to hold them in place while they healed.

I’d go back every week to get those wires checked and maintained (they protrude from the skin and are an infection risk).

After four weeks a doctor pried out these wires with a pair of medical pliers, then I was sent to an in-house physiotherapist who again sees me once per week, for free, until my hand regains its range of motion.

The two questions I’ve been asked the most:

1. Were you drunk?

2. Are you going to sue the council?

The answers are “not this time” and “nah”.

I have nearly no expenses.

If I needed similar surgery in the US, I would have probably faced a medical bill anywhere between $12,000 and $35,000.

Showing up to emergency by myself in the US, it would have cost between $1000 and $2000.

The days I had to take off work were paid, thanks to our national employment standards, and the total financial cost to me was $28 in Uber rides to and from the hospital, and $19.80 in ticket fees reluctantly paid to Wilson Parking who run the carpark at Charlie’s.

by DAVID BELL

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