, , , , ,

As a white woman from small, relatively homogeneous Vermont, I don’t often use Chinese New Year to give context to my memories from years past, but I’ll always remember my Chinese New Year of 2015.

I had been living and teaching English in Taipei, Taiwan for about six months, and a fellow expat friend and I decided we’d use our Chinese New Year holiday, which was about two weeks long, to visit China (not to be confused with Taiwan – two different countries). As is common in sightseeing, we walked a lot. My abdomen and hips got sore and uncomfortable. Was I getting my period? Was the Chinese street food proving disastrous to my digestive tract? Was I not wearing supportive enough footwear? Was the air pollution so atrocious that it was immediately making my hardy New England body sick? (No, no, no, and no.)

When I got back to Taipei, I wasted no time in seeing a doctor. I handed my national health insurance card to a woman at the front desk of a local gynecologist’s office, paid about 6 USD, got an ultrasound, and was told that my right ovary was sporting a sizable growth. I had a tumor.

Per the doctor’s instructions, I took public transportation straight to a large hospital in the center of the city. I handed my national health insurance card to a woman at the ER counter, paid around 20 USD, and waited. 

I left the ER without much more information, but with an appointment to see a specialist a few days later. I was terrified and thought I might have cancer. I was only 23 years old, and I was in a foreign country. 

And looking back, I can’t believe how lucky I was to be away from home.

My closest Taiwanese friend, Sunny, went back to the hospital with me for my follow-up appointment to translate – though the doctor himself could speak English just fine. When he told me in no uncertain terms that the tumor was a benign teratoma, I could’ve cried with relief. (I was fascinated, too: teratomas grow hair – and sometimes even teeth or eyes!) I don’t like to take any chances, though, so I told him, and then told Sunny to tell him in Chinese, that he could take the whole damn ovary if that’d be best. I had two, after all, and medical procedures mean great sacrifice, right? If I had to lose an ovary and half my savings, no problem. That was healthcare. I just wanted to be sure I’d be alright.

He and Sunny both laughed at me and said absolutely not, I was young and needed both ovaries so I could have many healthy babies in the future. The doctor asked me when I wanted to have the tumor removed. I said as soon as possible.

A couple weeks later, I took two days off from work, went to the hospital, relied on a series of kind and generous souls (friends and even acquaintances) who came and helped me navigate the whole foreign-language aspect and distracted me from my nervousness.

A couple days later, I was able to go home and spend the weekend recuperating. I was in a lot of abdominal pain, I had three small scars from the laparoscopic procedure, forming a triangle on my lower abdomen, and, bizarrely, the skin around my neck felt crackly when I ran my fingers over it, like plastic or cellophane, because of all the gas that was trapped in my body from the surgery. I had a cocktail of pills to take for the following week or so – medications for pain, swelling, and even pills to help me fart and poop more easily.

The whole procedure, including medications and the hospital stay, only cost me about 150 USD. The rest was covered by my health insurance, which was provided by the Taiwanese government.

All that was left was a follow-up appointment with my surgeon a few weeks later. He checked in on me and showed me gruesome pictures from the surgery. I was a little disappointed by my tumor – it was a bit gross, sure, but much less monstrous than I was expecting. This teratoma, which I decided to affectionately dub “Gerble,” soft “g”, was not toothed or even very hairy. It was pink on the outside, and smooth. Fitting, I thought, as the whole experience had been so much smoother than I’d expected. I was so lucky. I was lucky I’d been here, in this strange, new, foreign place, away from my family and loved ones. That was a strange realization.

If I had been in America for this ordeal, I would probably still be in debt. Or I would still have a tumor, and I’d be having a grand old time lying around in bed all day. I don’t know what I would’ve done.
And right now, the United States House of Representatives is hard at work representing their benefactors (certainly not their constituents, who don’t like dying). They’ve just voted to overturn Obama’s ACA, which, while an improvement from FUCKING DYING, is honestly a mediocre health insurance system compared to single-payer systems, which many developed countries (or most? or all but the US?) offer their citizens.

Health insurance is important. It is a human right. It is good for countries to have healthy citizens, and it’s good for citizens to know they’ll be okay despite life’s difficult changes, hardships, and tumors. The US government has just voted to kill and inflict pain on Americans, albeit in a sterile, roundabout way. They can’t get away with it.

Call your representatives and senators, Americans.