Why I love Japan pt II
Yesterday, my list of reasons why I love Japan had grown too long for this humble little daily log. So, I had to cut it short before I got to the biggest reason why I love living in this country, universal health care. It really is amazing. Of course, I pay a few hundred dollars a month from my salary to cover myself and those who cannot afford health coverage. I don’t mind. I believe health is crucial for any society to thrive. When people have to sell their homes or face financial oblivion just to pay their hospital bills, it lays the foundation for desperation, which turns into crime and violence. Paying for those who can’t pay is paying to maintain the quality of the society in which I live. It is also my way of making good on a cosmic debt I owe.
In my younger days as a broke musician, I went a few years without paying for health insurance. The bills stacked up but I had other priorities like keeping my kids fed. However, no matter how far behind in my payments I got, they never cut me off. When the amount grew to be too large, they called me to the city office. I was nervous and ashamed to go. I expected to be yelled at or even arrested. Neither things happened. The city office clerk spoke in a kind voice and offered several repayment plans that would allow me to pay down the amount that I had accrued. A few years later I needed that insurance coverage in a big way.
I was struck down by a horrible autoimmune disease called Graves’ disease. I thought I was dying. I was very much into the rock and roll lifestyle and thought my overindulgence in booze and cigarettes had finally done me in. My hands and legs were always shaking. I had lost a great deal of muscle power, so much so that I couldn’t carry a bag of groceries from the supermarket. Even walking the 15 minutes to the shop was like moving through an invisible pool of molasses. My heartbeat was so strong I could hear it in my ears pounding like a taiko drum. My appetite was fierce but food came out of me just as fast as I pumped it in. I felt constantly off kilter, both physically and emotionally. Imagine the worst pms induced mood swings, which are driven by hormonal surges, then multiply that by 1000, that’s what I went through for a full year before the disease had reached a critically dangerous point. Somehow, during this time I managed to finish a US and Japan tour.
In the US, my mind was out of control and the anxiety that came with the disease was so overwhelming I thought I would shake apart into a billion tiny pieces. It didn’t help that the US staff was so incompetent it made my blood boil. At EVERY venue, it was the same. The staff was lazy, sloppy, and had no concerns about our schedule or getting the stage set up on time. At one of the venues, either House of Blues in LA or Highline Ballroom in NYC, I lost it. We were supposed to have a sound check and rehearsal at 2pm then open the doors at 5pm and start the show by 6pm. (I actually don’t remember the exact times but it was something like this.) At 3 pm, the stage had not been set up and it looked like it was never going to be set up. My temper exploded. “What the fuck!!! We were supposed to be doing sound check at 2pm. It’s now 3pm and not a god damned thing has been set up. We paid good money to rent this venue. The tickets are sold out. I will be damned if I will let you ruin this show. Get the shit set up!!!! NOW!!!!!!” The crew gave me an evil stare down. I must have looked crazy to them. My hands and legs were shaking like I was scared but I was far from scared. In the grip of Graves’ disease, the emotional energy it took to whip those assholes into shape was almost more than I could bear. I didn’t care. If I had to throw knuckles to get the show started on time, that’s what I was prepared to do. Luckily, my shouting was enough to get the lead out of their butts so that we could start on time, albeit without a full sound check and rehearsal.
Although the disease had made it impossible for me to interact with my bandmates in any sort of normal, or human way, I held strong to my sense of professional duty and executed every show with all of the passion and showmanship I was hired to do. I was determined to not let the band or the audience down. In spite of the terrible US staff, the shows were a giant success.
When the tour was over, my body could somehow sense it had the all-clear to completely break down. A few days later I went into a full-blown thyroid storm. According to Heathline.com “a thyroid storm is a life-threatening health condition that is associated with untreated or undertreated hyperthyroidism. During thyroid storm, an individual's heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature can soar to dangerously high levels. Without prompt, aggressive treatment, thyroid storm is often fatal.”
Although Japanese universal healthcare is superb, community clinics can be hit or miss. Some are run by lazy doctors who were probably lazy medical students. They coast through the day diagnosing everyone as having a cold or giving false diagnosis when they don’t understand the problem. I went to one of these clinics to find out what was happening to me. The doctor, an old woman named Saito, went through all of the motions of giving a thorough exam. She listened to my heart. Touched my neck. Listen to my lungs and had concluded that my shaking hands, racing heart, and endless waterfall of sweat was from of a lack of exercise and nutrition. I thought it was a preposterous diagnosis but there was nothing I could do.
A few days after my visit to Dr. Saito, I went to Enoshima and was having the hardest time keeping up with the group. They were racing to get to a dragon’s cave before it closed. I tried my best to keep up but I could barely walk. “What’s wrong with you!!! Hurry up!!!” They yelled. By the time I had reached the mouth of the cave, I was so dizzy I thought I would blackout. The stress caused some sort of temporary blindness. The whole world had been reduced to a fuzzy pinhole of light. After 5 to 10 minutes of rest, my body settled down and my vision came back. That episode was enough to prompt me to call a doctor friend, whose name was also Dr. Saito. I explained the symptoms over the phone. She insisted that I go to the hospital immediately. A quick blood test confirmed the diagnosis.
I had to go to the hospital every day for a check, then once a week, then once a month. Each blood test cost 5,000 yen, which I thought was a lot. I was worried that the healthcare costs would be a problem because I spent 50,000 yen in the first month on blood tests and meds. If I compared that to what I would have paid in the US then I was lucky. According to the internet, it would have cost me more that 20,000 dollars in the US if I didn’t have insurance. I probably wouldn’t have had it because it is expensive and the preexisting condition would have disqualified me from getting it. The point of this story is that I was spared financial ruin because of Japanese universal healthcare. That’s why it has become the number one reason why I love living in Japan.
I am all better now. The disease has vanished or is in remission. Although it seems like a horrible story, it was actually what I needed. Life on the big stage was unpredictable and far from financially stable. I needed to take care of my young ones. Through the nuclear holocaust of my illness I was able to rebuild my life from the ashes. I used the down time to complete my graduate school studies. I gave low key lectures at Temple University, I started working at NHK and eventually, I reshaped my life into one that was more stable so that I could be in a better position to provide for my children, which was something that really meant a great deal to me. If I had gotten sick in America, I would have never been able to rebuild. I would have become and indentured servant, slaving to pay off my healthcare debt instead of rebuilding my life and taking care of the cost of raising kids.
Thank you, Japan, for taking good care of me. I will always love you for that.