Each of the two times I have had the privilege of attending Burning Man, I’ve remarked on how wonderful it is to be in a truly civilized place. It’s heartening to know that human beings can build a social structure, however small, that enables them to be themselves, no matter how strange, and treat each other with openness, respect, and dignity. I used the word “civilized” in a half- (perhaps quarter-) joking manner to highlight the dearth of true community and the misplaced priorities we experience in our day-to-day lives. This week, however, I have discovered just how deeply accurate my remarks really are. In short, I received infinitely better medical care in the middle of the Black Rock Desert than I have upon my return to “the default world.”
Here’s the story, as briefly as I can put it (which is “not very”… I’m working on that). Early in my week at Burning Man, I managed to slightly scrape my ankle somehow. I was so caught up in my research and with the wonders around me (drunk on nothing but inspiration, thank you) to notice the little wound. One of my very kind compatriots aboard the Neverwas Haul pointed out the injury and I cleaned and bandaged it, but somewhere before or after (perhaps with insufficient maintenance; I am now committed to getting first aid training), it became infected. By Monday, my foot was swollen like a softball and 8 different shades of red, purple, black, and blue. The Haul’s crew takes care of one another—urgent need was noted, and I was immediately whisked away to Black Rock City Emergency Services on the best ambulance imaginable, the Chairway to Heaven (many thanks to Kathy, Dave, and Vicki for their swift assistance). Turns out I had contracted a staph infection. As a historian, I know full well how dangerous infections can be (many more wartime deaths are attributable to infection and disease than blades and bullets) and I was very relieved to see a full and extremely competent medical team, who cleaned and bandaged my wound and provided me with antibiotics to combat the little nasties in my system. After a brief hospital stay, I was driven back to camp in a Godzilla art car—quite the dramatic return.
On doctor’s orders, I broke camp (with the insistent assistance of my crew mates) and suffered through the drive to the nearest city, where I could further clean up and get the rest I needed to heal. A brief aside: if you’re considering a drive through the desolate environs of northwestern Nevada with an infected right foot and a manual transmission, don’t. I highly recommend against it. I’ve been convalescing in Reno at the Sands Regency Casino Hotel ever since, working away on my laptop in bed with my foot bound, elevated, and iced. I’m tiring of room service, but the Sands has been a welcome, if somewhat ironic, place to rest and heal. I had planned to return to Seattle on Tuesday, but am in no condition to make the 14+ hour drive. My plans had to change, and I am now going direct from here at the end of the week to San Francisco for an early promotional event for Vintage Tomorrows, my book and documentary film.
You might think that was the worst of it, but this is where things really got sticky. Those who know me know that I am a planner, a lover of physical comfort, and a stickler for hygiene and personal detail. I carry with me an extensive portable pharmacy of over-the-counter medications to account for most general ills, and carry an extended supply of all my prescription medicines every time I travel. This time, I brought with me a full 2 week supply for my 1 week in the desert. Well, I wasn’t expecting to be laid up in Reno. Who does? (Okay, depending on how you read that sentence, perhaps you do, but I intend the phrase sans innuendo). I’ve been making calls and sending emails, rounding up presentable clothing (the steampunk wear I have with me is pretty “desert rat”… or at least it is now, and my best hats, jackets, and the like are in Seattle, locked securely away with the rest of my medication in my studio apartment), changing travel arrangements, and attempting to secure a temporary supply of my medications to last me through the next week and a half, as I’ll not be back in Seattle for some time.
After the better part of yesterday and some of today on the phone, I’ve been informed that my health insurance (currently Premera Blue Cross, but not for much longer) will not cover an emergency supply of my medications. As far as they are concerned, they’ve paid for my meds and it’s my own fault that they’re in Seattle and I’m in Reno. After three hours of conversation with multiple representatives and a supervisor, I was forced to ask if they honestly expected that I carry with me a full 90 day supply of medicine any time I travel just in case I am injured and have to change plans. Her answer amounted to “yes.” It doesn’t matter that my doctor approved an emergency supply, it doesn’t matter that the pharmacy has the medicine on hand and is willing to dispense… most of all, it doesn’t matter that I’m a historian for hire, running on financial fumes to get to my next destination. If I want my medicine, I need to pay full price out of pocket. A couple meds I can live without, a couple will put me in severe withdrawal if I miss them for more than a day or two. It doesn’t matter to them, it’s “policy.”
Welcome to America, folks. Insurance companies rule the roost and they don’t give a damn about you. The real infection here is the profit motive. All of the individual doctors, nurses, and pharmacists I’ve spoken to have been extremely sympathetic, kind and helpful, but Premera and its ilk hold the keys to the cash register. I’m researching and prioritizing, and will find the funds to cover the things I can’t live without (If my work next week wasn’t so important, I’d be half-tempted to let it go and head to the emergency room when I become seriously ill… that’d save them a dime, huh?). I’ll be fine. So, please, if you read this, do not worry about me. Worry about the system. Be prepared. America is not a civilized country. You don’t have a safety net, even if you are insured.
I wish I was back in Black Rock City, where people took care of one another and truly valued the well-being of those around them. I’ve learned a lot from Burning Man. Many of these lessons I will carry with me for the rest of my life. This one, though, is a doozy. Even if you know nothing about Burning Man, and care little for alternative forms of community, I encourage you to pause as you go about your daily life, and ask yourself: “What would it be like if we prioritized health over ‘policy’, or people over profits? What if we cared for our neighbors like we care for our families?” I certainly see the potential for a much better future than the one we find ourselves in now. And what’s more, I believe we can create a truly civilized tomorrow together if we try.