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Fainting in This Country Can Carry a $10,000 Price Tag

After passing out, Kirk Nielsen got gouged by exorbitant health care fees.

There's really no good time or place for a blackout, though some are significantly worse than others. Mine, one subzero evening in downtown St. Paul, Minn., last December, fell solidly on the inauspicious side of the spectrum.

The Level 2 lobby of the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts was teeming with people waiting for the second half of a fine production of Irving Berlin's White Christmas to begin. I was standing with my mom, sister and her three young-adult kids. Through the windows of a dazzling curtain-wall that spans the front of the trapezoidal building, I was admiring the golden lights on the canopy of trees in the park across the street. On the warm side of the glass, a professional trio of carolers had just finished a short intermission set. I was in a good mood; a fantastic woman in Duluth was expecting my call after the show to finalize plans for our first date the next night.  

Suddenly, I felt weirdly lightheaded, so I turned to hasten to my seat. I took three steps, got the spins and took a nosedive, just missing the edge of a wine and coffee bar. Upon impact, I regained some consciousness and sat half-sprawled with my elbows on the carpet. A short-haired middle-age woman was crouching next to me, asking me if I knew my name, what day of the week it was, where I was. I did, which eliminated the possibility of stroke. "You blacked out ... I'm not a doctor ... That happens to me ... You should lay down," I recall her saying.   

Assuming the dead man's pose in the Ordway lobby sounded fairly embarrassing, so I resolved to head for one of the lobby's posh benches several paces away. With someone's help, I got to my feet, and within two steps, a heavy wave of dizziness nearly sent me back down. I made it to the bench and sat, feeling exhausted and nauseated, and exchanging glances with the horrified faces of my mom and sister. I hoped my nieces and nephew were inside watching the rest of White Christmas, not their uncle's freak show.    

There was talk of an usher who was also a paramedic. He -- a polite young man in a dark suit -- appeared and took my blood pressure, which was very low as was my pulse. He said calmly that one option was to call an ambulance. I was afraid, I thought I might be dying, I was thinking about my deductible. The number "$2,500" flashed through my mind.  Or was that my maximum "out of pocket"?

I knew for sure that I was enrolled in a $129-per-month emergency and hospitalization plan with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida. Like everyone, I'd heard that a trip to an emergency room could cost several grand.

"I can't afford that," I muttered.

"Now isn't the time to worry about money," my sister responded, slightly scolding.

Then my eyes rolled upward into my skull as I blacked out again, my chin dropping to the top of my chest and the rest of me still just sitting there.

Moments later, I awoke from a frenzied dream, intensely disoriented, then realized I was still on the bench. The usher was looking at me. "You did it again," he said. Not certain I wasn't in the early stages of some kind of gradual heart failure -- I had felt some weirdness in my chest before my sprawl on the carpet — I consented to the ambulance ride.

Within a few minutes I was rolling feet-first on a stretcher, into the elevator, out into the subzero air and aboard the rescue truck. As I recall they affixed an intravenous tube into my arm and asked me to open my mouth so one of them could toss in some tiny nitroglycerine pellets, which dilate the blood vessels. "I bet you don't wear those shoes in Miami," one of the paramedics joshed, referring to a pair of (my dad's) old brown rubber jobbies that clashed badly with my black wool suit pants. Then they put an oxygen mask over my mouth.

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