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September 19, 2018

The Monthly Migraine: The ER bill was $1,600, but the pain was worse

Health Stories Migraines
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Being rushed to the hospital during an attack is a horrifying rite of passage for any migraine sufferer.

So far, I’ve had three emergency visits to either my primary care physician or the emergency room. No matter where I go in search of relief is scary but making the decision to go to the ER is easily the most frightening.

Navigating the healthcare system in America is tricky, especially when one emergency-room visit can be financially crippling, depending on medical needs. My husband and I are well aware that emergency room visits come with crushing bills, each of us having been to the ER for other reasons. 

In 2016, however, a headache attack had me back in the ER. The bills we continued to pay on our last two ER visits were on my mind, but the agony was so terrible I had to forget all that in exchange for quick relief.

THE ATTACK

I’ve experienced so many headache attacks at this point that I can easily identify my trigger and know how each trigger most affects my body. Stress is always the worst trigger. When I get attacks triggered by stress, it brings blinding pain, unbearable pressure, nausea and vomiting so bad it dehydrates me, which then exacerbates the headache’s length.

The 2016 migraine that landed me in the ER one was a stress one.

At the time, I had a boss who created a stressful environment for the staff. Most of it I could handle with an eye roll or sympathetic look at my colleagues, but everyone eventually has a breaking point. Mine happened and brought on a headache so quickly that I couldn’t get my medicine in me in time. I tried to ease my tight muscles with a neck massager specifically purchased for such times, but the stress was so deep in my muscles that the massage made everything worse.

A few moments after the DIY massage, I started throwing up and couldn’t stop. Between the pain and nausea, all I could do was curl up and cry on the bathroom floor, waiting for the next nausea wave to come. There was no point in getting up and moving to a more comfortable location. By the time I got to a couch or bed, I’d be throwing up all over again.

THE EMERGENCY ROOM

I needed help. I had no other relief options, and this was something I couldn’t wait out in a bed, like most of my other attacks. I cried thinking of how much an emergency room visit would cost me. It was 7 p.m. – my doctor’s office was closed, as was most urgent care clinics – I had no other option.

My husband was at work and couldn’t leave, so I called my brother and pleaded for help. His wife – a nurse – went into nurse mode and helped navigate the emergency room process when I couldn’t speak due to the constant vomiting. They both took care of everything, so I could curl up in a ball with a plastic vomit container I brought with me.

My brother and sister-in-law headed back into the exam room with me and didn’t leave my side. The doctor came in with questions that I couldn’t answer because I didn’t have enough time in between my vomiting. I could tell the doctor was getting frustrated, which made me feel immense guilt. My brother tried to answer as many questions as possible, but there were some only I could answer. Over time, I was able to get out some answers, but not all.

The hospital staff set me up with an IV to rehydrate me. They put anti-nausea meds and a stronger dose of my typical medicine in the IV. I curled up on the little hospital bed and passed out. I woke up 30 minutes later, freezing under the light hospital blanket, but feeling a little better. By that time, my husband had arrived and was sitting next to me.

I just wanted to go home to my bed, my dogs, everything that comforts me, but I still had to stay until the doctors cleared me for release. Around 9:30 or 10 p.m. I was permitted to leave, feeling thankful but completely out of it.

THE AFTERMATH

For days, I had fear and anxiety just waiting for the bill to arrive. It finally did – to the tune of $1,600. Like many other millennials, my husband and I didn’t have that much money to shell out. Even with our full-time jobs and my part-time freelance work, we still couldn’t scrape enough money together to pay off the bill at once. I had to go on a payment plan for the bill that took two years to pay off.

I felt frustrated and defeated about the bill, but I was especially angry – at my body, at the stress in my life and that my boss had that much effect on my health. It was like everyone else had control of my body but me.

I’m lucky that I haven’t had an attack that bad in a while. After it happened, I applied for my medical marijuana card. I was terrified of it happening again and had heard marijuana helps manage pain and nausea. It’s not a magical cure for migraine by any means, but it’s the only thing that has curbed my nausea and pain during my toughest attacks.

Still, I often think how we approach emergency health services in the United States. If $1,600 put such a dent in my finances – someone considered part of the country’s middle class – I couldn’t imagine what would happen with a more serious situation or lower income bracket.

It’s strange to say I spent that much money on one migraine attack, but in that moment, relief was more important than my bank account.

The Monthly Migraine is a series dedicated to migraine awareness and support. If you suffer from chronic migraines, you are not alone and we hope to amplify your voice through these pieces.