Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions. 


Thursday, July 18

Gapers Block

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I have been ill for eight years with a chronic illness.
But really that's a private matter.
I have a job.
I try to work hard, devoting a fraction of the attention, creativity and sharpness of mind that I used to have before getting ill.
It's important for me to stay employed while ill, so I can afford health care.

I am Aetna Patient ID # W1216 78452 GRP 874783-10-000.
I used to be Blue Cross Blue Shield # 0000B4239 001.
In eight years I've visited countless different doctors and specialists as HMOs dictate and permit.
I've paid out of pocket for special care while insured.
I've paid out of pocket for prescription drugs unlisted on the insurance company's formulary list.
I've paid out of pocket for services not provided by insurance companies, like the cost of the labor when a nurse sticks a needle into my arm for a blood test.

And, even while insured, I paid out of pocket for an ambulance to take me to the hospital after fainting spells and seizures.

The questions about my history rather than my actual illness get more and more specific and lend themselves to exclusion as the years go on.

History of illness?
When did the illness begin?
Can you sum up your illness of the last eight years in one sentence on this dotted line?
How many prescriptive medications have you taken and what were the doses?
Ever been pregnant?
Ever had an abortion?
Ever enlisted in the Armed Forces?
Are you a veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces?
And my favorite ever-so-important medical history question: Marital status. Single, married or divorced?

With each visit the same questions are asked:
Maternal grandfather? Lung cancer... chain smoker.
Fraternal grandmother? Brain cancer.
Paternal grandfather? Cancer.
Older Brother? Manic.
Eldest sister? Hypertense.
Mother? Manic-depressive.
Father? A lifelong smoker, heart attack sufferer, with a bad diet.
Maternal grandmother: 98, living alone, and still making soup.

I often walk into medical offices with a preprinted resume of my health history in hand. I'm constantly asked to fill out a new form describing my medical history.

I recently visited a health clinic.
I filled out another form.

This time I note that my older brother is manic but a successful and motivated entrepreneur, an excellent father, husband, coach and friend. He periodically, and gracefully, weathers the painful symptoms an old knee injury from time to time. We choose to call his condition "productive." I note that although my maternal grandfather was a chain smoker, he owned a grocery store at Jackson and Kilbourn for many years and that he and my grandmother kept the people of his Polish neighborhood fed and employed through the Great Depression throughout the 1930s and '40s.

I note on the form that my father was a lifelong smoker but he showed up to every game, every concert, took us camping almost every weekend of my childhood, and not once did he raise his voice or hand to me as a child.

I share with them that my sister is a chronic back pain sufferer -- a health condition developed doing heavy lifting while working nights to free her to coach volleyball and volunteer in the computer lab at her sons's schools. She is hypertensive as a result, but she is a loving mother, teacher and sister.

I tell them my mother did have mood swings and suffers Bursitis of the hip, but is an award-winning celebrated educator responsible for teaching children English and advocating for public education and immigrants' rights in the U.S.

I even volunteered information about my Great Uncle Stan (although this wasn't on the form.) Uncle Stan was a lifelong alcoholic, but he also was a well read Chicago garbage man who collected found treasures, recycled them, and donated to the less fortunate in the 1950s and '60s.

I noted my history in the margins when the dotted lines were too short.

When I returned the annotated form to the receptionist at the blood lab I gave her my "I might be crazy" nervous giggle in response to her look of disapproval. There were notes and maps and diagrams and pictures of people and history. And, just as she was about to tell me to fill out another form, I gave her my Christopher Walken laugh and look; The one he uses just before pulling the trigger in The Deerhunter. It's a hybrid expression I've cultivated over the years -- a mix between Jack Nicholson's smile from The Shining and what I imagine Schumann's face must have looked like while he composed maniacally in his sleep.

"I am Aetna Patient ID # W1216 78452 GRP 874783-10-000," I said.
And she could see in my eyes that refusing that document was not an option today.

They took my blood.
They checked fluids and counts and chemicals and beeps per minute.
They read my illness: kidneys, liver, white blood cell count.
I almost fainted again during the test.

All in all, the process took eight minutes.
Filling out the medical history form required 42.

I walked out of the office wondering what my family would one day note about me in the margins of the form.
My illness?
My number?
Or my artistic, creative and loving contributions as a human being?


About the Author(s)

Kimberly Soenen is a writer and founder of Unspun PR.

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