Waiting for a medical bill to arrive in the mail is the emotional equivalent of a person hiding in the ruins of a city following a nuclear holocaust and evading the flying robots tasked with exterminating whatever remains of humanity like the ones at the beginning of "The Terminator."

All I need is Kyle Reese to show up and tell me about dealing with the bill collectors who will soon commence telephone harassment at all hours once I inevitably fail to cough up the several thousand dollars this most recent emergency room trip will cost.

"Listen, and understand. That bill collector is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity or remorse or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead."

OK, maybe dead is a strong word. I'll just wish I was dead and free from all this debt. I made an ill-advised 911 call last summer because I mistakenly believed a panic attack was a heart attack or a stroke. The ambulance, emergency room doctor and hospital stay cost $1,600. I sent what I could afford, and they sent it off to collections anyway.

I've been getting unfriendly phone calls and threatening letters from lawyers for about a year now.

On Sunday morning, I took a header into the laminate floor of my apartment. I split my lip and knocked a tooth loose. The shiner below my left eye socket looks like an amorous leech trying to make love to my face. My mind has been fuzzy for a few days. I pondered telling my coworkers these injuries were sustained fighting Nazis, but I forgot the joke.


So how much? Ambulance, doctor, emergency room. This time they gave me a CAT scan, too. I inadvertently insulted the technician when I asked why there was no tunnel.

"That's an MRI," he responded, curtly.

I guess you have to work up to MRI. My bad.

The national health care debate going on in recent weeks has taken on special resonance. I faint on occasion. This is complicated by the fact that I'm 6 feet tall and about 240 pounds. It's a long, heavy way down. (Note to self: Donate glass coffee table to thrift store.)

I work hard. I pay my taxes and my health insurance premiums. Why, then, should I be forced to tell my girlfriend — whose terrified voice I hear high up in the clouds above this inky black place where I now dwell — not to call 911? Just let me lie here for a couple of hours. We can staple my lip shut. We can pick up some gunpowder tomorrow and cauterize the wound.

I like living in the United States. For the meantime, however, I'm calling for a new rule: As long as I and people like me have to choose between facial trauma treatment and bankruptcy, stop calling it the "greatest country on Earth." I don't want to hear it.

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