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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

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Math Geek Mom: Scary Stories and Scary Choices

When I returned from a campus visit for what became my first academic job, highway construction forced us to get to the airport by detouring through the downtown. Along the way, the man who would become my department chair pointed out important sites. Somewhere between another university and a revitalized downtown area was the Cleveland Clinic. He told me that the Cleveland Clinic was a world-class hospital, on par with the Mayo Clinic. I listened politely, but could not imagine that I, a healthy 27 year old, would need to know much about a big hospital.

August 27, 2009
 
 

When I returned from a campus visit for what became my first academic job, highway construction forced us to get to the airport by detouring through the downtown. Along the way, the man who would become my department chair pointed out important sites. Somewhere between another university and a revitalized downtown area was the Cleveland Clinic. He told me that the Cleveland Clinic was a world-class hospital, on par with the Mayo Clinic. I listened politely, but could not imagine that I, a healthy 27 year old, would need to know much about a big hospital.

When I turned 25 as a graduate student, I lost the ability to be carried on my parent’s health plan, and therefore became one of the millions (42 million at the time, I believe) who had no health insurance. For an occasional sore throat or ear infection I simply went to a walk-in clinic to obtain a prescription, and otherwise was fine. I didn’t think much about the head aches that were frequent occurrences in my life, or the fact that I had lost my sense of smell, balance and my ability to take tests under pressure all at about the same time. I was basically healthy, and therefore bought the minimal coverage required of graduate students, paying about $15 for a policy that I am sure was worth every penny I paid for it.

When I woke up on the first day of my first tenure track job and didn’t know where I was, I called my parents several states away. I was told by my sister, whom I had probably just woken up, that I was in Cleveland; “where do you think you are?” I then proceeded to get sick to my stomach and go back to sleep.

I soon felt better, so I continued on with settling into my new job. After about two days, I realized that I just didn’t feel quite right, and that maybe I should visit one of those walk-in clinics. This, however, did not prove to be directly useful. The doctor saw a young woman walk in with strange symptoms that included, among others, getting sick to her stomach early one morning. Rather than listen to what I had to tell him, he focused on me getting sick and kept asking me “what test do you want me to run?” I didn’t grasp what he was asking me, because I could have told him that I was definitely not pregnant, but instead sat there confused, saying “I don’t know.” Finally, when he offered to send me to a psychiatrist, I realized that he was dismissing my physical symptoms and left his office, forgetting to sign my credit card receipt. This was August 30, 1990.

When I got home, I called my parents and told them that “there is something wrong with me, and I don’t know what it is.” My sister had taken a college class in neurology and therefore knew the description of a seizure when she heard one. She told me that I needed to get to a neurologist quickly, and the next day I made an appointment. The first time they could get me in was after the Labor Day weekend, on September 4th. The long weekend included the date of September 1st, when my own health insurance plan became effective.

At that appointment, a CT scan showed that I had a tumor the size of an orange growing in my head. Suddenly the presence of the Cleveland Clinic was of particular importance in my life, and, within one day, I was a patient there, waiting for an operating room to open. I soon learned that the Cleveland Clinic was one of the best places in the world to be treated for a brain tumor. Thanks to that doctor’s mistake, I was able to pay for world-class care without (too much) worry.

I thought of my story recently, and was filled with more than a little “survivor’s guilt” as I learned of the death of Senator Edward Kenned from a brain tumor. It is fitting that he was a strong supporter of health care reform, as anyone in need of serious health care is only too aware of the ways in which our current system is not always adequate. What exactly the optimal health care delivery system is, I don’t know, but I suspect that we could go a long way towards helping policy makers find one by sharing our own stories of ways in which we have found our current system to be inadequate. Therefore, in memory of Senator Kennedy, I am suggesting we open up this blog column today for discussion addressing the question of what we have found good or lacking in our current system. In what ways has it helped you? (I know that I was able to obtain cutting edge care when I needed it.) What difficult decisions have you had to make regarding health care? How has it affected your health and the health of your family? What would you need to have happen to feel safer negotiating the world of health care?

Indeed, as I propose this question, I may just have found an answer to a question I proposed several weeks ago. Perhaps a more fitting name for these postings, rather than “blogs”, would “web discussion board”, with our entries being the point of origin for open discussions. Can anyone come up with a good acronym to describe that?

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