Suffering in Private

Ken Cutler

I FIGURED IT MUST have been the spaghetti from dinner at the dining hall. What else could have given me such sharp abdominal pains? Perhaps I had food poisoning that would eventually pass. That night back in the apartment, I couldn’t sleep due to the pain. I got up every half hour or so and headed to the bathroom. Strangely, I was unable to relieve myself. In addition to severe pain, I felt constipated.

By early morning, I knew something needed to be done. Although I couldn’t stand up straight, I managed to get on the first bus to campus and disembarked near the infirmary. It was before regular hours, so I rang the bell at the emergency entrance. When a nurse finally appeared, I blurted out, “I think I have food poisoning” and immediately vomited to underscore my point.

I stayed in a bed at the infirmary throughout the day. I was given acetaminophen for the pain. It didn’t help. From time to time, someone would come in to check on me. One time, the doctor stopped by with a nurse and tapped my distended abdomen. “Trapped gas” was his diagnosis. Meanwhile, I continued to feel severe pain that was, if anything, increasing. I heard them say that I didn’t have a particularly elevated white blood cell count, which might have indicated appendicitis.

By evening, I was moaning and imploring them to give me something stronger for the pain. At that point, the infirmary staff decided they didn’t know what was going on and called for an ambulance, which took me to the emergency room of the closest hospital. By now, I was really feeling out of it and even the misery of a nasogastric tube insertion was minor by comparison.

They took some x-rays in the emergency room, but the results were inconclusive. I was scheduled for exploratory surgery the next day. I heard the doctor tell my father over the phone that there was a small chance the operation might be life-threatening. In the midst of all this, I was asked whether I wanted a semi-private or private room. Not particularly feeling like having company, and oblivious to the financial impact, I opted for a private room.

The next morning, I was in surgery for two and a half hours. My appendix had apparently burst 40 hours previously, when I had first started feeling the abdominal pain. By the time of the surgery, I had severe peritonitis that had spread throughout my intestines. It was quite a mess to clean up. If I’d been born 50 years earlier, when medical technology was more primitive, my life almost certainly would have ended at age 21.

The first few days of recovery in the hospital were a blur. I was connected to some kind of machine and getting Demerol shots in the thigh for pain every four hours. I felt good for an hour after the Demerol shot, was okay for the next hour, became quite uncomfortable by the third hour, and for the last hour was probably a nuisance to the nurses as I clamored for my shot.

My condition improved after the first few days. A buddy from college brought over his cassette player, headphones and a box of cassette tapes, which were key to helping me pass the time. To this day, I still associate certain ABBA songs with that hospital stay.

As I neared the end of my hospitalization, I was told a group of friends were coming over to visit. Although my pain had decreased markedly by that time, I asked for a Demerol shot just to be sure I would be in good shape when my friends arrived. Maybe because it was no longer needed for pain, this time the shot had an unusual effect on me.

My mind started racing and, upon seeing my friends, I started blabbing to them about who knows what. The tempo of my speech increased with each sentence. When I finally got to the end of my bizarre monologue, I was aware that my head was spinning and knew I was not in my right mind. The visit ended prematurely with a final admonition from me to my friends: “Don’t do drugs.”

My hospital stay lasted 10 days, after which I went home for an additional six-week recovery. Of course, my college term was over. One of my roommates, Matt, took care of the actions needed to withdraw me from all my classes. Fun fact: Matt is now my son’s father-in-law.

This happened in 1984. What did my 10-day life-saving stay at the hospital cost? My father had a Blue Cross student insurance policy for me. The policy allowed $190 for an appendectomy. My surgeon charged $900. There was no distinction made for a ruptured appendix versus a simple appendectomy. My father paid the difference. In addition, the $300 anesthesiologist charge was not covered. Dad paid that as well.

What about my 10-night stay in a private hospital room? The insurance policy only covered semi-private stays. Whoops. The private room cost $100 a day, while a semi-private room would have been $90. Though the insurance company didn’t have to, it covered it all.

I’m grateful for the excellent and attentive care I received at that southwest Virginia hospital. I have to wonder how different my experience might be if I were to find myself in a similar situation today. One thing’s for sure: It would be a lot more costly. With a little research, I found that average daily hospital expenses in Virginia were around $2,550 in 2020, lower than the national average of $2,850. Still, that’s a 10-fold increase from the inflation-adjusted daily charge of $250 for my 1984 hospital stay.

Ken Cutler lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and has worked as an electrical engineer in the nuclear power industry for more than 38 years. There, he has become an informal financial advisor for many of his coworkers. Ken is involved in his church, enjoys traveling and hiking with his wife Lisa, is a shortwave radio hobbyist, and has a soft spot for cats and dogs. Check out Ken’s earlier articles.

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