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  • Ken Ilgunas

The thongue thinjury

Thi'm thalking thike thith now becauth I thurt my thod thamn thongue.

I was a minute into a two vs. two pickup basketball game when one of my opponents—swinging around to take a jump shot—delivered an uppercut to my chin with his elbow. I dropped to the floor, capturing the spit and blood that dribbled from my mouth with cupped palms.

I fled to the bathroom to assess the damage. Both the top and bottom of my tongue—imprinted with teeth marks—were oozing blood profusely.

I consider myself a fairly tough person. I’ve had my share of cuts, bruises, and broken bones and I’ve dealt with them—as my father taught me—“like a man.” During my freshman year of high school, my coach popped me a fly ball at baseball practice. Transfixed with the ball’s rotating red laces and graceful earthward arc, I forgot about catching it and let it land on my right eye—an injury that would require eight stitches. Once I chased my little brother who had been impudently masticating his food (my biggest pet peeve) to get a rise out of me. We scuffled in his room, where I crashed my knee through a drinking glass, requiring another six stitches. On a power play in a game of hockey, I slid feet-first into the boards, snapping my ankle.

My reaction to each of these injuries was different than the reaction to my most minor injury today. I felt pain then. Now I just feel anxiety. This is because I don’t have health insurance.

The uppercut was accidental and the guy who nailed me was apologetic, but I was frustrated and told them, with a mouth full of blood, “Thigh gotha go. Thi’m theeding theal thad.”

I spent the rest of the day in discomfort. I quickly tired out rarely-used facial muscles because I couldn’t let the tip of my tongue touch my teeth. It hurt when I exposed it to the air so I inhaled and exhaled through one half-plugged nostril. The thought of chewing dry food made me wince. I bought some yogurt and got worried when I couldn’t taste the French Vanilla flavoring. I figured that I’d irreparably damaged my taste buds before realizing I accidentally bought the “Plain” variety.

Ever since I graduated from college four years ago I’ve been one of the 46 million Americans without health insurance (except for a six-month period when I worked for AmeriCorps). I didn’t even get insurance as a ranger—easily one of the more danger-filled professions.

Because I couldn’t justify paying the ludicrous monthly rates for a service I could hardly afford and would probably never use, I decided to take my chances and go without health insurance. And to my good fortune, I’ve yet to have to visit a doctor.

But these days all my injuries—large and small—cause anxiety. A small bump on the back of my head. A sore knee. A pulled muscle. Could it be something more? What if I need surgery? Have I taken my cheapness too far if I consider removing my own appendix?

To get a doctor to even look at my tongue would probably cost at least $100. To get her to actually do anything about it would cost me immeasurably more. It’s all so discomfiting because an actual injury would ruin my loan-free-college-degree experiment and thrust me back into the world of debt from which I worked so hard to escape.

My friend Wally tore his ACL in a pickup football game. My friend John—who’s maybe the most healthy-minded person I know—has been diagnosed with three types of cancer. Luckily, they had insurance, but if I got cancer, I’d either die or have to spend a good chunk of my life—perhaps all of it—paying off medical bills. To be honest, I’m not sure which I’d choose.

While my health-related anxieties are in large part due to my lack of coverage, I think my paranoia has as much to do with the influence of my mother, whose training as a nurse has somehow qualified her to make the most outrageous and whimsical medical evaluations. Last week on the phone, after a singular cough, she diagnosed me with bronchitis with a surety that suggested she made her determination based on careful analysis and scientific objectivity. She’s told me I have impetigo—whatever that is—on at least three occasions. Upon observing the slightest bump or discoloration, she’d say, worriedly, “I hope you don’t have [insert vaguely-related disease].” I always responded mockingly.

“Keep laughing. You think I’m crazy. But you’ll see some day,” she’d say.

I’ve yet to see that day. Instead of making accurate diagnoses, my mother has merely transfused her strain of fear into me. Now I find myself making hasty diagnoses based on information gleaned from internet medical sites.

The French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, said, “Priests, doctors and philosophers unlearn us how to die.” The fear-infected “bourgeois” of his day invented superstitions and ways to try to conquer death. The same is true today. The fear of death causes a fixation with tomorrow and a forgetting of today.

Without sufficient funds or coverage, people have to find work to get an insurance plan. Not just any work. But the 40-hour-a-week kind from companies that are well-off and for-profit. And with work comes a home, home repairs, the filling of the home with stuff, the bills for the home and all its stuff, not to mention the back pains, sore feet, and a stationary, uninspiring, and vapid existence. In this country you have to sell your soul to pay for security.

“Drive away the doctors,” Rousseau said. “You will not avoid death, but you will feel it only once, while they bring it every day into your troubled imagination; and their lying art, instead of prolonging your days, deprives you of the enjoyment of them… Suffer, die, or get well; but, above all, live until your last hour.”

With all our attention devoted to prolonging life—or in fantasizing about frolicking in pleasant-sounding afterlives—we oftentimes forget to live the lives we have.

I’d like to admit I’m fear-free, but I’m not. Health insurance is one of the few things I want and am willing to pay for (if it was reasonably priced). But if I can’t have both a secure and a free life, I’ll thake thy thinjured thongue and thy thances thany thay.


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