Observations: It wasn’t surgery, it was a ‘procedure’

Published on: March 12, 2014

Shortly after my "procedure," I decided to take a self-portrait of sorts, resting the camera on my face and pressing the button. Photo Mitch Traphagen

Shortly after my "procedure," I decided to take a self-portrait of sorts, resting the camera on my face and pressing the button. Photo Mitch Traphagen

Just over 24 hours after finishing my recent column on health care, I had the unexpected opportunity to seriously put my health-care coverage to use.  And what I discovered is that, when experienced in person, such an occurrence allows one to go well beyond all of the rhetoric. The bottom line is that despite the problems related to coverage, American health care is unbelievably good. In fact, it is outstanding. The commitment and excellence of doctors and nurses goes well beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. And while, on a personal level, their commitment and excellence carries no price tag, from an administrator’s standpoint it certainly does help if you can afford it. Excellent health care is not cheap. But I’m here to say that for what they did and how they did it, I wouldn’t expect it to be cheap.

Just one day after finishing that column and two days before it landed on driveways, I heard Dr. Ranchhod Khant, a highly regarded cardiologist at Bay Area Cardiology, tell me, “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but I’m afraid you have some problems with your heart.”

Seventy-two hours later I was on an operating room table, watching a bank of monitors showing a catheter reach into my beating heart.

I’ve spent the past year mired in what I felt was unrelenting stress. Some of it was self-inflicted, some of it wasn’t. My dad died of a heart attack at 43; my Mom started having heart problems in her early 60s. I have a few unhealthy habits and have been far more focused on work than on taking care of myself. And it seemed I was now paying the price for both my careless attitude and my family history.

In the 1991 movie, City Slickers, Billy Crystal played a character named Mitch who was going through a midlife crisis. At Career Day at his son’s elementary school, he sardonically summed up the passing decades of life, including that, in a person’s 50s, they’ll have a minor surgery. Oh, they’ll call it a “procedure,” but it’s really surgery.

Plans for life changes have been in the works for the past month. Perhaps it was too late, perhaps it wasn’t enough. In the time between meeting Dr. Khant and arriving in the dark early hours at Brandon Regional Hospital, I spent the few days wondering where life would lead now, if anywhere at all. I had studied up on what my own “50s procedure” would entail and learned that it was not only an extremely common operation, it was also incredibly safe. I had very little chance of dying. But first I had to have the procedure.

Dr. Khant greeted me as I was being prepped for it. A smart, warm and gracious man, he somehow had the ability to make the prospect of opening up a major artery seem like a walk in the park. He also shared a few additional details.

“I had a little fight with your insurance company,” he said. “They wanted to deny this. I told them that if they did, I would have to call you up and tell you to go to the emergency room right now.”

He said it with a smile; it is likely he has had to use similar tactics in the past. To me, it was stunning that, first, an experienced and highly respected cardiologist would be forced to do such things, and, second, that some faceless, nameless entity at a gargantuan insurance company felt that they somehow knew more about my health than an experienced and highly respected cardiologist.

The speed and efficiency with how things worked at Brandon Regional Hospital was impressive; the compassion shown was even more so. Every step of the way, people were friendly, helpful and understanding. Though they see guys like me coming in the door several times a day, they made me feel like I was the most important person, even the only person, they were working with. I was stunned by how amazing and painless (both physically and emotionally) they made it.

Two weeks ago, I mentioned my experiences with two local doctors. I was not advertising for either of them, just relating my experiences with them. I know there are many great doctors in this area. Previously (with a different insurance policy), my doctor was Debra Shultz, and I thought she was wonderful, just as I think Dr. Satya Gullapalli is wonderful. If I had different insurance, no doubt I would find other outstanding doctors. We are fortunate in South Hillsborough to have so many excellent and dedicated health professionals.

In City Slickers, one of Billy Crystal’s (Mitch’s) friends had taken a very bad turn in life, and things reached a critical point in which he had seemingly lost everything. Mitch told the friend that he should look on the bright side, that it wasn’t that he had lost everything but rather he had now been granted a do-over in life. He could simply start again.

I haven’t lost anything in this experience; in fact, I’ve gained much. I know more about my own health, and I’ve met a whole bunch of health-care professionals with whom I am wildly impressed — and to whom I am deeply grateful. I don’t need a do-over, but I do need some life changes. And I’m going to do just that.

After the procedure, I was wheeled into a room where my wife, after speaking with Dr. Khant, found me, and the hours passed in a pretty happy, drug-induced pleasantness. Every few minutes, a very friendly nurse would check in on me, and, after a few hours, she offered me a sandwich. That sandwich was like manna from heaven. And for the millionth time I was left impressed with this incredible group of people and how well they took care of me.

Finally the tubes were disconnected, and the nurse took my arm and walked me out of the hospital. I hugged her before she helped me into our waiting car. Everything went well, and I’m just fine. I waved goodbye, and then Michelle and I drove off into a new life.