Health Care in America has Gone to the Dogs

by Meta Wagner

25 October 2009

Compared to the modern-day American, their dogs have the best of everything: questionable intelligence (i.e., happiness), poor memories (i.e., forgiveness), and low expectations (i.e., contentment).

As someone who’s written quite a bit about politics as a cultural phenomenon, I feel I’ve been remiss in avoiding the subject of late.  Thus, an article about health care reform in the US. 

Now before you close the cap on your bottle of Ambien, thinking this is going to be a snoozer, rest assured that I’ll attempt to cleverly combine the topic with an infinitely more pleasing one: the benefits, health care and otherwise, of being a dog in America, these days.

While the expression “it’s a dog’s life” may have originally referred to the life of hard work dogs once endured, for me it conjures images of dogs rolling onto their backs for their bellies to be rubbed, racing around in circles in the snow, or publicly licking their privates without shame or embarrassment. Dogs appear to have nothing more vexing to think about than whether they’ll be eating dry or moist food for dinner.

In fact, compared to the modern-day American, dogs they have the best of everything: questionable intelligence (i.e., happiness), poor memories (i.e., forgiveness), and low expectations (i.e., contentment).  And the advantages don’t end there.  It turns out that, cost issues aside, it’s also a dog’s life when it comes to health care in the US.

Consider the following: when a dog is due for vaccines or a checkup his owners (“parents” / “companion people”—however you wish to call it) receive a reminder postcard in the mail. Whereas when we humans are due for, say, a first-time colonoscopy or prostate cancer test—potentially life-saving screenings—we receive no notice whatsoever. 

When a dog visits the vet, she’s greeted with genuine affection by the receptionist and assistants, who pet and hug her and speak baby talk. Whereas when we humans go to the doctor, we’re greeted by the receptionist with, “Has your insurance plan or address changed since your last visit?” 

In the vet’s waiting room, a dog gets to bark loudly at other dogs and frighten cats by sticking his face up to the screen in their carrying cases. In the doctor’s waiting room, we merely thumb through magazines that are boring or out of date or have had the one interesting article ripped out of them. 

Once inside the vet’s office, a dog can keep her fur coat on. Whereas we must strip down to our undies and sport a paper robe with a plastic ribbon that wouldn’t fit around Scarlett O’Hara’s famed 17-inch waist.

Preferential treatment of canine patients over human ones even extends to more serious health care matters. This theory is borne out by personal experience from several years ago that still irks me today. Strangely, my golden retriever Rupert (who died a year ago of unrelated causes) and I each underwent somewhat comparable surgeries. 

Rupert had a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his rear left knee repaired. Professional athletes often tear this ligament as a result of a skiing or football or hockey accident.  In Rupert’s case, he probably tore it by spotting a pile of leaves in the distance that he mistook for a friendly, if passive, dog, and ran after it too eagerly for a pooch his age. A few months later I had surgery to repair a tear in the rotator cuff tendons in my right shoulder—what is known as an aging sports injury (yeah, thanks).

Rupert’s surgery took place at a small animal hospital in the suburbs of Boston; my surgery took place at one of the leading hospitals in the world. The vet said Rupert would be staying overnight for observation and to receive pain medication to make him comfortable.  My surgeon said that I might or might not be staying overnight, depending on “how things went”.
“How things went” was as follows: from pre-op to post-op, the phrase “you should be able to go home today” was spoken in a cheerleading voice by everyone involved in my care. That would mean leaving the hospital with a bottle of Percoset two to three hours after undergoing a two-hour surgery on a part of the body that is chock full of nerve endings, which means OUCH.  The anesthesiologist said the local anesthetic would last for hours (it didn’t), the resident assured me that everything went smoothly (not exactly), the nurses in the recovery room administered stronger and stronger pain killers (to little avail)—all the while prodding me to go home. 

I can imagine the memo from management:  “Tell all day surgery patients to click their heels three times, close their eyes, and keep repeating, ‘There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.’” 

Would I have preferred to go home? Of course. Hospitals are not my favorite place. I also make a practice of not staying somewhere I’m not wanted. But, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon (or, in this case, an orthopedic surgeon) to know that intravenous painkillers are more potent than a couple of pills. 

And so I asked to stay overnight. The immediate response: “You can’t. You know the way it is with managed care.” But fortunately, I had already received pre-certification for an overnight stay if necessary. Then:  “There might not be any beds available.”  But lo and behold, my surgeon had reserved a bed for me, just in case. Only then was I “allowed” to be hospitalized.  If I didn’t know how to play the game or I wasn’t so persistent or, perhaps, if I didn’t speak English and couldn’t advocate for myself, I’d have been sent home too soon and without adequate pain relief. 

This experience has me wondering why the caring professions seem to care more about keeping a dog rather than a person out of pain. I think it comes down to this:  we have greater compassion for dogs because, as I mentioned in the column, “People Substitutes”, we like them more than we like humans. There’s good reason for this: they’ve mastered a quality that eludes people: the capacity for unconditional love. And because they give it, they receive it.

When I look at it from that perspective, I have to ask myself, who’s more deserving of good care than a dog?  And yet, despite the foibles and failings of human beings, let’s hope the Obama administration and Congress provide us poor human Americans with a decent health care system that’s fit, at the very least, for a dog.

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