When I was in my 20s and early 30s, before I had a job that paid benefits, I didn’t have health insurance. If I got hurt, the only hope I had, and I thought about this deeply, was to get in the car and drive it into a tree. Then, I could blame my broken limb on a car accident, for which I had the very minimum of insurance.
But I wasn’t always going to break a leg or hand or arm, and I felt the helplessness of being uninsured. One night, on my way home from a first date with a woman I would come to love, I stopped in at the liquor store at 57th and Troost for a couple of six packs. I parked in front of a brick wall, behind which the clerks worked the store. The door was glass and glass fronted the store where the merchandise was for sale.
I was intoxicated on two levels. I had already had a few glasses of wine with my date. And she had given me a kiss. I was on top of the world.
On my way into the store, I walked past some boys who were hanging around on the sidewalk. They smiled at me and I said hello. Once inside the store, I bought my roommate’s favorite beer. He was laid up at home with a bad back. I knew he’d appreciate the gesture. Plus, I hadn’t had quite enough to drink and figured I sit with him and watch television and finish my drunk.
The clerks at the store stood behind a counter fronted with bullet-proof glass. I put my six packs up on the shelf in front of the window and slid my money under the glass to the clerk. He returned my change and wished me a good night. Oh, I will I said, I just left one of the best dates I ever had. I had a six pack ahead of me. There’s nothing that will bring me down.
I walked through the door and turned to my car. Once out of the clerks’ sight, I heard a crack and felt a massive blow to the top of my head. I felt struck by lightning. The jolt drove me down on my knees, and since I was wearing shorts, I felt the sidewalk scrape the skin from my knees. I was on all fours, as the boys swarmed over me. There must have been five or six. One kept beating me on the head with a tree branch, which he had already broken in two when he hit me the first time. Two other boys swung fists at my face, landing one hit after another. They kept screaming, “Give us your wallet! Give us your wallet?”
I was irritated. “Goddammit,” I yelled between fists and bashes from the tree branch, “let me get the damn thing.” I reached for a side pocket on the leg of my shorts, but I couldn’t open it. They kept hitting me, harder and harder. One kicked me in the gut. “Let up,” I said. “I’ll get your damned wallet.”
The melee didn’t stop until a police cruiser skidded into the parking lot and sent the boys running in all directions. One cop ran up to me and asked if I was all right. Again, I was irritated at the question. “What do you think?”
We were watching the blood flow profusely down my face and onto the sidewalk. The cop helped me up and out of my T-shirt. I wadded the shirt up and held it on top of my head. “My god,” the cops said, “your bleeding from the back of your head, too. Don’t panic. Stay calm. We have an ambulance on the way.”
My shirt was soon sodden to the point where I could have wrung it out. I sat down on the ledge in the window. A solid trail of blood ran from where the boys had knocked me down past the front door to where I sat.
When the ambulance arrived, the paramedics tried to stop the bleeding with gauze and sponges. Once they stemmed the flow, they wrapped me in a turban and slung me on the gurney. The hospital was seven blocks away.
Once in the emergency room, the doctor stripped off the gauze, which now dripped red onto the floor. The nurses held me up off the bed and put a plastic sheet under me. Soon, the doctor and the nurses were wrist deep in blood. I felt faint. The doctor instructed, implored, then begged me not to give in to the heavy fatigue and sleepiness I felt.
A hospital administrator walked into the room. “Do you have insurance?” I don’t know what I mumbled.
The doctor and nurses finally stopped the blood. A nurse shaved around the lacerations in my scalp. The doctor sewed forty-five stitches, twenty three across the top of my head where the boys had landed the first blow, and another twenty on two long wounds across the back of my head, and two stitches in my left ear, which had nearly been severed in half.
“Well, he doesn’t have insurance,” the doctor said. “We can probably get by without giving him blood.”
Once he sewed and bandaged me up, the doctor wanted to keep me in the hospital for a few days, but the administrator said that because I didn’t have insurance, it would be best to send me home. The doctor made me wait three hours before he let me go.
Two detectives paced around the room, asking for descriptions and other details. All I remember, I told them, was shoes and bare legs. One detective kept talking about street justice, how these kids should be beaten if they got caught. He kept going on about it, sometimes with a malicious grin. “I bet they were black, too,” he said. “It’s always the blacks.” I told him that I’d had enough violence already. I didn’t want to hear anymore.
One of my roommates retrieved me from the hospital around dawn and stayed up with me. The nurse told me that I had a severe concussion and that I wasn’t to sleep for at least twelve hours. She also said I lost a lot of blood and that I should drink plenty of water and see my doctor the next day if the faintness and anemia didn’t abate. I told her I didn’t have a doctor. My head reeled. My legs and arms felt disconnected from my body. The world buzzed.
My roommates kept me awake well into the evening. I fell asleep immediately when they let me. When I woke the next day, I looked at myself in the mirror. My head was shaved in swaths. The black sutures stood up like barbs on a wire. I looked like Frankenstein’s creation. I couldn’t believe it. I started to cry. What did they do to me? How could I go out in public like this?
A week later, my head had not stopped hurting since the incident. I couldn’t see right. I wobbled around the house and couldn’t go to work. My sight finally came back to me about ten days after the ambulance ride. I couldn’t walk straight right for a month.
Then, I received the bills: $750 for the five-block ambulance ride, $3,500 for the emergency room, sponges, bandages, and stitches (and this in 1987 dollars). I had to pay another $150 to see a doctor the week I got mugged. He gave me iron tablets and salt pills and recommended that I take two months off work, which was laughable. I skipped the follow up and had one of my roommates remove the stitches. I lost two weeks of work, at least $320 (at $4 an hour, excluding overtime). Fortunately, my rent was minimal—I lived, literally, in a closet in my roommates’ house for $25 a month. They fed me while I was off work.
I had no money in the bank when I went to the hospital that night. I spent four years paying off those bills at $100 a month. No one was ever caught. For years, I couldn’t stand in a line anywhere—grocery store, DMV, you name it.
I didn’t feel animus toward those boys and never have. They were kids. They thought if you hit a man over the head, he’d collapse like people did in cartoons. I didn’t and they panicked. They didn’t get away with anything that night. Their deeds would either bother them or catch up to them. Are any of them CEOs today? How many of them have prison records? Nobody gets away with anything.
I did and do think about the fact that the hospital didn’t keep me that night. I didn’t get a pint of blood I needed. I think of the callous treatment uninsured victims of violent crime get. If I have a resentment, it’s that I may have succumbed to side-effects from a battered brain and not been in a hospital to receive treatment. I didn’t because I was lucky. What if? Could I have sued the hospital? I didn’t have a bank account and you need money to sue.
Health insurance. Health care. Deductibles. Copays. In 1987, thousands of people just like me experienced getting turned away from decent care because they couldn’t afford health insurance. There have been many thousands since. How many thousands today, and what happens when Trumpcare throws many millions more off their insurance?