From my slumped position in a folding chair, I watched my husband dig his cellphone from an overstuffed bag. A packet of oatmeal came out with the phone and fell to the floor. Gary hauled all sorts of things in that bag: cans of ginger ale, doctors’ private cellphone numbers he had somehow accessed, saltine crackers, books, lidocaine, insurance forms, and a list-of-meds notebook. He looked like a sherpa without the Himalayan backdrop.
I was sleeping off the last of the Benadryl and whatever else they put in my chemo cocktail. We were at the pharmacy in the lobby of Stanford Hospital, and I could hear a piano player oozing out a lullaby that sounded familiar. That place is like a luxurious nightclub with expert musicians, but as far as I know, they don’t serve drinks.
While I enjoyed my medicated haze, Gary punched numbers into the phone.
“But she needs two,” I heard him say. By this time, he had stepped out of the line at the pharmacist’s window and his bag spilled by his tennis shoes. Cancer had upended our lives, and scooping crap off the floor had become our new normal.
I heard him ask if there was someone else he could talk to and then he sat next to me while he waited.
“I’m calling our insurance company,” he whispered.
I smiled and hummed along to the piano while Gary absently stroked the back of my hand with his thumb. “Put it on speaker,” I murmured. “Then we can chat while we wait.”
We listened to the competing sounds of tinny Muzak and the sumptuous keyboard. Gary told me about Stanford’s yogurt bar and the mall he visited while I was sleeping. A few minutes later, another guy came on the phone.
“The doctor gave my wife a prescription to treat side effects from chemo,” Gary summarized. “He said she can expect intense nausea and that she needs two pills, but your colleague said he’d approve us for only one. These pills cost $200 each. Can you help us out?”
We heard clicks from a keyboard beaming my personal information into the stratosphere.
“Sorry,” he finally said. “We think she can get by with one.”
“Excuse me?” Gary’s face was incredulous. “Are you a doctor? An oncologist?” My husband is normally effective in these situations. He knows that to get what you want from a bureaucrat, you have to visualize the form on the screen in front of them and make it easy for them to click their boxes. Being confrontational doesn’t help.
As entrepreneurs, ticking off a form is a foreign way for us to think. So many times, though, when I’ve been on the cusp of losing my temper with a government employee, Gary’s shoved a piece of paper in my face. It has a box with a check mark along with a smiley face, and it’s our code for dealing with people who sit in cubes wearing khaki pants and those awful headphones.
The problem is that I didn’t need just two pills. I actually needed sixteen, two for every chemo session. Gary’s too good at math to let it slide.
“If she gets really sick,” the insurance guy went on, “you can tell us, and next time we might approve it.”
By this time I was alert and feared Gary’s head would explode. “Why don’t we not experiment on my wife,” he barked. We were well past the smiley phase and into the nasty.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Mr. Cube went on. “Your request is denied. Are there any other questions I can answer for you today?”
“Just one,” Gary said, his voice seething. “If I were your CEO, and his wife were the one with cancer, would he be getting one pill or two?”
Gary took out his credit card, and the pharmacist handed him a little plastic bottle with two pills.
That year, my husband and I wore our car out driving to appointments while we scrambled to find caretakers for our daughter. We competed for hotel rooms with Silicon Valley billionaires because that’s where Stanford Hospital is located, hours from our home. And we splashed credit cards down for extravagances like medicine, the basics of which insurance didn’t cover.
Four years later, things have calmed down. I feel strong and healthy, and we’ve wrapped the cancer debt into our family’s finances. Now, as I make those monthly payments, I can look at the pink in my cheeks, the hair on my head, and the wherewithal of my amazing husband.
I’m grateful for all of it. Even for the guy in the khaki pants with those weird headphones in a cube far, far away.
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