Three days in a US hospital convinced me that America needs ObamaCare

The bare-faced callousness of the American healthcare system is obvious. This isn’t a hospital; it’s the Wild West.

But is it really? Image: Getty


“Yeah, you’re going to need to go to the emergency room with that.”

In a healthcare drop-in centre in Brooklyn, I’m paying a man in a white coat $130 to prod my puffy red hand.

I last set foot in an A&E when I swallowed a piece of Lego, aged three. An emergency room, though? It has that “let’s not fuck about with unnecessary words” sense of American urgency to it. An emergency room is where you go when you’ve been shot seven times in the spleen. It’s where humans reduced to bloody slabs of gristle are careered about on trollies, and doctors need amounts of things, “stat”.

It started with a mosquito. For unknown reasons, a small bite on my finger ballooned and left me with a buoyant ham where my left hand used to be. Despite having been told by a dead-eyed pharmacist, “It’s fine. Take Benadryl”, there was no way (as a formidable hypochondriac) I wasn’t going to get it checked out.

My sister lives in New York, so I’ve spent a lot of time in the States, visiting her. But this is my first time navigating my way through the USA’s Kafkaesque healthcare system. First comes the paperwork, a War And Peace-thick pile of it, on which I write my name so many times that the words “Eleanor” and “Margolis” become hilariously absurd. Good thing I’m right-handed. I’ve been an American patient for fifteen minutes and I’m already starting to sweat. I bought health insurance at home, but I’m convinced that the company will play dirty; trying every trick in their sputum-dripping book not to cover me. While my hand is getting bigger and redder right before my eyes, I envisage a bill for a mighty stack of dollars. This is met with a peel of laughter by my insurance company, because I forgot to specify on their forms that I have one tit bigger than the other. “I’m sorry,” they’ll say, “We only cover the evenly-breasted. Enjoy prison.”

As the US government shutdown draws to some kind of close, maybe, I find myself lost within the system that started the whole thing.

I’m in a hospital bed, on an antibiotic drip. Some kick-ass painkillers have started to take effect, and I feel like human cheese on toast. I’m sharing my room with an elderly Hispanic lady called Carmen. Carmen is motherly and flatulent. Worried that I might catch a chill, she covers me in a blanket, then retreats behind her curtain and loudly farts.

My attempts to get to sleep are intermittently interrupted by the nearby calls of a nurse with a thick Brooklyn accent.

“Mary!” she says, again and again. I hazard a guess at Mary being a difficult patient.

Day two. I’m woken by a man’s voice.

“Miss Margolis?”

Medicated and soporific, I murmur something.

“Uh,” I say, perhaps.

The owner of the voice draws back my curtain and, to my drowsy horror, I’m met not by one person, but a crowd. I’m sprawled out in a star shape and half my face is coated in dried-up saliva. The man (a doctor) has brought along an eager troupe of young med students, to ogle my freak hand. A few pretty blonde girls in white coats jot down notes as the doctor points to bits of me and says sciencey things. Blood rushes to my cheeks.

“I am not a monster!” I want to say.

The doctor ushers the students away, and I go back to sleep. I’m next woken by the Food Bringer.

“Breakfast,” she says as she drops down a tray containing something that might be egg. I pick at whatever it is and endure a rush of overwhelming sadness. I can’t clear my mind of the fact that I’m in a place where a lot of people come to die. In another room, someone is hacking up a lung. Unable to concentrate on even the trashiest of American TV, I spend what seems like an hour poking holes in a polystyrene cup with a pencil.

“Mary, don’t touch that!”

My brother-in-law arrives with coffee. Having just been doped up with more painkillers, I gaze blankly at the ceiling while he speaks gibberish over the phone to my insurance company. Kind and attentive as the hospital staff may be, it’s hard to appreciate that you’re recovering when you have that constant, underlying fear of a giant bill.

“I know you’re in there, Mary!”

Carmen is arguing with a nurse in Spanish. I make out the words “Medicare” and “Medicaid” – America’s vestiges of socialised healthcare. Poor Carmen. I hope she’s covered.

Somewhere nearby, I can hear a nurse talking about the government shutdown.

“They just have to have their ObamaCare,” she says, her words oozing contempt.

I begin to wonder how the Republicans have managed to convince even those in the very midst of a system that punishes the poor, that the slightest implementation of state-funded healthcare is an evil, communist conspiracy.

Day three. A good-natured Polish nurse has just hooked me up to a drip and given me an injection of blood-thinner in the stomach. Carmen is leaving.

“Get better, darling,” she says, “And remember – if you need anything – money talks.”

She chuckles and exits my life. With her final words to me, Carmen may have been joking – but she’s neatly summed up the bare-faced callousness of the American healthcare system. This isn’t a hospital; it’s the Wild West. As a foreigner with travel insurance, I’m lucky enough to observe American healthcare from a safe distance. But to someone fully enmeshed, like Carmen, ObamaCare is a tiny drop in the murkiest of quagmires.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood