The other day was bitter cold, and I was walking back from the grocery store with a bag of tomatoes (love how you’re always lacking that ONE ingredient just half an hour before your company shows up) and trying to remember what it felt like to have feeling in my nose. Behind me I heard a clatter and a shout. I turned around, to find a man down on the sidewalk, clearly in pain.

“Oh my God, are you okay?”

“No. I think my foot is broken.”

I had nothing with me but a bag of tomatoes. I hadn’t driven, and I had thrown my wallet into my canvas grocery bag rather than carry my purse, so no phone either. Still, the guy was well-dressed, he looked like the type to have a phone.

“Is there someone I can call for you?”

He took out his phone and called his friend who was waiting in the pub next to us.

His friend came out to help and another woman stopped as well.

What was running through my head:

Stabilize the foot, get him in the back seat of his buddy’s car, and have him drive to the nearby Urgent Care Center, where they could take an x-ray to find out whether anything was really broken.

What actually happened:

The friend called 911 for an ambulance while the woman ran into a nearby Italian restaurant. The manager brought out tablecloths to help keep the man warm while we waited for the ambulance to arrive. The friend took several pictures of the icy sidewalk with his phone. The manager of the Italian restaurant collected his contact information to give to the owner of the shopping center. I tried to say encouraging things but mostly stood around like an idiot. The ambulance arrived and took him to the emergency room of his preferred hospital.

Why the vastly divergent plans of action?

It didn’t occur to me until afterwards: of course the guy had medical insurance. The idea of calling an ambulance for a broken ankle seems excessive and strange to me because it would set me back a month’s wages, which could be better spent on rent and tomatoes.

Which was the better plan?

Playing it safe and getting professional help ASAP? Or not wasting the time of EMTs who could be out responding to a heart attack instead?

I’m not sure, but it’s the mental divide that intrigues me.

What kinds of attitudes about health and medicine are being fostered in the US among the insured, the recipients of Medicaid, and the uninsured working poor? How much does this change with a change of status?

I know I do a lot of stupid things because I’m uninsured. I don’t get regular checkups. I haven’t seen a dentist in years. On the other hand, I’m obsessive about eating well, staying active, flossing, and resting when I’m ill. I can’t afford to be in poor health, so I do everything in my power to stay spectacularly healthy. I’ve never overused antibiotics because I’ve never gone in for a prescription. I’ve never “asked my doctor” (my doctor? what doctor?) about drugs or procedures I didn’t need.

I’m glad one person got the treatment truly was needed, and immediately. I’m glad there are multiple ways in which the process of getting treatment can occur. I’m glad that there are a lot of ways we can keep ourselves healthy, both those involving medical professionals and those not.

And am I ever glad I didn’t break my own ankle, and end up unable to work, unable to pay, and unable to discover any viable path through the disaster zone of our broken healthcare system.

Please walk carefully out there!

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