Friday, June 29, 2012


My mother used to say that when I was born I didn’t cry; I coughed.

And I am alive today only because the company my father worked for provided health insurance.

She was overstating things only a little, because when I was born the umbilical cord was knotted around my neck so tightly I was actually not breathing at all. Had she waited to go to the hospital or had me at home because she was uninsured, I might not have survived. And because she wasn’t forced prematurely from the hospital with a newborn, and they soon discovered I had an enlarged heart.

That cough that finally did come and didn’t go away a few months later? The doctor came to our house, listened to my lungs and admitted me to the hospital with pneumonia.

At nine months, when she noticed something wrong with my eye, she didn’t have to wait to bring me to the doctor. A cyst was discovered and removed before causing permanent harm. I gave her a black eye when I hit her with the splints on my arms as I recovered.

For the first two years of my life, perhaps because of an immune system already weakened by birth trauma, I contracted every basic childhood illness, one after the other and sometimes simultaneously; chicken pox, measles, mumps, whooping cough, tonsillitis, bronchitis, and God knows what else. Unknown viruses swept through my body like wildfires. I would go to bed healthy and in the middle of the night my mother would check on me and body would feel so hot she would be afraid to take my temperature. My earliest memories (plural) are all of being bundled in blankets and being carried to the car by my father and then all of us, my parents and my older brother, racing to the hospital in the middle of the night or leaving early after overnight trips to my grandmother’s and stopping not at home first, but the hospital or the doctor’s office. I spent weeks swathed in mentholated oil and breathing humidified air, was fed ice chips like most kids get oatmeal, and my mother lost track of the times doctor’s told her “If the fever doesn’t break soon …”

But because I had health insurance, because they didn’t stop often to think if they could afford it, I always got to the doctor or the emergency room on time, always received the shot of antibiotics, the prescriptions, the around-the-clock care. It didn’t help that I was reckless and accident prone – falling through glass doors, down stairs, getting caught on barbed wire, nearly cutting off my thumb with a butcher knife, driving the staff of a small Fourth of July flag through the roof of my mouth, knocking out my front teeth on the dashboard when my father’s car was rear-ended while parked. When I stepped on a nail, received a tetanus shot and seemed to fall asleep on the ride home, my father didn’t hesitate. He shook me out of habit and when I didn’t awake he turned around and carried me into the emergency room. I was in a coma due to an allergic reaction, making all subsequent encounters with sharp objects (of which there were many, including more nails) problematic. Often the entire wound would have to be excised, cored like an apple to prevent infection.

Between the coughs, the pneumonia, the unexplained fevers that kept coming, the allergy to milk that waxed and waned, the bone disease, an arm broken and healed that we only discovered when we thought I had broken the other one, the weird hives I got after being immersed in cold water, what I remember most about school is leaving; field trips cut short leaving other students seething, visits to the nurse, vomiting in the hallway, searing headaches that made me cover my head and scream. Teachers became as adept as my mother at spotting my rapidly emerging maladies, banishing me from class and sequestering me on a cot in the office before I could infect the others as my fevers formed and began to rage, friends peeking around the door at me as if I were some alien, uncertain if I was contagious. What I remember most from my report cards are the absences; 23 days, 29 days, 18.5 days, 32. In sixth grade, after bouts with both pneumonia (which I eventually had six times that I am certain of), and mononucleosis, I peaked with a high of 47 or 48, something that gave me a curious sense of pride; I wasn’t just a sick kid; I was the sickest. All told, of my twelve years in primary and secondary school, I probably missed class about 15% of the time, something that I blame to this day for certain lapses of knowledge, like how electricity works.

Yet when I was not ill I was robust, all appetite and action, which must have made my periods of illness all the more frightening. Each hospitalization was ever more exotic. I was a course in pediatrics all by myself and younger doctors were often paraded in to examine my chart and poke and probe as if I were some new species. Old drugs stopped working and I was always being given new ones.

I should have been dead a dozen times, maybe more, and even with insurance I remember some nights seeing my mother with a stack of bills and my father sitting at a table and the worry over payment, for even insurance did not pay everything. We were not wealthy by any stretch, or even close; one car, one 600 or square foot house on a half acre plot in the cornfields, and once a year vacation – maybe - to see relatives, at least one of which I recall involving a trip to the hospital.

Yet I survived, and somehow, so did our family. Without insurance I doubt that either would have. I’d have died and my parents likely would have lost the house, filed for bankruptcy and fallen apart. But by high school the rate and severity of my illnesses and accidents began to wane, and as an adult – knock on wood – persistent health has replaced chronic infirmity. The baby born coughing has gone on to write and publish several million words and many books, jog a distant equivalent to the circumference of the earth, play a wide variety of sports as both a teenager and an adult and outlive both parents. A recent physical confirms I am more robust than most people my age. Apart from a brief time in my early twenties, when I was fortunate enough to remain well, I have had insurance, either through my own work or that of my wife, and have not often needed it. My own daughter, now sixteen, has enjoyed the good health I did not. But even she, at age seven, was seriously ill with a bout of necrotic pneumonia that ended up requiring nearly two weeks of hospitalization in two facilities, an ambulance transfer during a blizzard, and several surgical procedures.

Even then, insurance paid every cent of her treatment, which included the stint in the hospital that, had I been responsible would have left me bankrupt. More important, had we not had insurance and had to factor caution and cost over concern and waited perhaps one more day for her to get care, it would certainly have killed her.

I knew then how my parents must have felt, and how some parents might feel today.

Glenn Stout is the author and editor of more than eighty books.  For more information see

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