Journey Story

What I Learned When I Broke My Arm Without Health Insurance

by Carl Charles

As a child, I was desperate to have a cast. At some point in elementary school, my classmates started showing up with brightly colored arms and legs, casted to protect their quietly healing broken bones.

I didn’t understand this miraculous process. 

All I saw was neon colored plaster to be signed, attention lavished on the cast-bearer as they told and retold their brave tales of adventure through hospital emergency rooms and doctor’s visits.

I was so desperate for a cast that I decided to take matters into my own hands (legs) by climbing up and jumping off of tall structures, attempting to break a bone. I jumped off trees, swing sets, and the roof of our house. Much to my dismay, all attempts failed and I was relegated to counting on the normal course of life to lead me to a broken bone and subsequent acceptance into the elusive cast club.

Life, it turns out, is not without a sense of humor; at age 33, I finally broke a bone. Unfortunately, getting a cast had been removed from my priority list a long time ago.

As I moved into my 30s, I had finally begun to accept the relative fragility of my human body. 

I started setting goals during physical activity like “have fun,” and “don’t get hurt,” rather than the aggressive “win at all costs,” mentality of my 20s.

But, I am nothing if not a work in progress. In a New York City Gay Basketball League (NYCGBL) game, with only a few minutes left, I took on the biggest guy on the court. We collided and I knew as soon as I stood up that my wrist was broken. What hurt more than my quickly swelling wrist was the knowledge that I no longer had health insurance.

Like many Americans, I was caught in the insurance gap between jobs and knew I had limited options. My previous insurance coverage ended on the last day I was on payroll, and my new job carried a 30-day waiting period before enrollment. As a white, able-bodied person with educational and class-passing privilege and a modest amount of resilience for unexpected stresses of life, I felt overwhelmed and anxious.

I could not afford emergency room costs nor could I afford the specialists recommended to me by the urgent care doctor who took x-rays and provided a temporary splint.

What would I do? 

Where could I go to get the medical care I clearly needed? How would my work for my new employer, upon whom I was trying to make a good impression, be impacted?

After some delay, I finally received COBRA paperwork from my former employer. The amount they wanted me to pay out of pocket (for only a month’s coverage) was $700, far more than many working people can afford. As the panic set in, I did what I think many Americans do in moments like these: try to make peace with an untreated, life altering injury. It was a tough pill to swallow but what choice did I have?

When I expressed my resigned hopelessness about getting treatment to a friend who works in (LGBT) healthcare, he calmly talked me through my options. As a person living in New York City, I could be seen by some of the best doctors in the United States even though I didn’t have insurance.

This possibility was baffling to me. But honestly, it shouldn’t be. 

As I sought care at NYC’s Bellevue Hospital, I was met with kindness and compassion, despite the staff being completely overwhelmed with patients in need. I saw Christ’s love in their tireless commitment to serve every person in their care, whether or not they had health insurance.

We should live in a country where accident, illness, and injury don’t threaten to break our bank accounts, put us in crushing debt, or relegate us to a diminished life expectancy. We should live in a country that regards our physical and mental health as matters of “national security,” that values our lives as much as it values the strength of our currency.

Even with today’s relieving news that the latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act has failed, I am thinking of those who are supported by the life-saving services of Medicaid and Medicare and cannot suffer a disruption in their care.

I am thinking of the people who shared ER hospital waiting rooms and free clinic lines with me for hours on end, to be seen by gracious, but overworked hospital staff. And I am remembering how willing the members of Congress and the Senate were to end access to healthcare, while they enjoy some of the finest healthcare in the United States.

I cannot abide such callous disregard for the well-being of my neighbors, friends, and family. 

While today’s news gives me some hope that we can continue to shift our country’s ideas about caring for people, it reminds me that it will not happen without a fight.

I will not forget how precarious access to quality and affordable healthcare is. And I will be vigilant to ensure that my temporary reality does not become a permanent existence for so many millions of our siblings across the country.

Photo provided by Carl Charles