Big-Box Health


I know I am not alone. I know that many of you are just like me: you work hard at a job you love for a paycheck you don’t. Still, I have learned to live on my meager compensation, am even grateful for the opportunity to be not trendily but necessarily frugal. True, I haven’t had health insurance since college, but I am young and healthy, and other than the occasional Pap smear or inexplicable face rash, I am deftly able to avoid doctors and their offices.

And yet despite my reverence for grapefruit, flax seeds and Pilates, I do sometimes find myself feverish, congested, achy, bronchially inflamed, bed-bound. Sick. Miserable. I float on a fluid sea, I double-fist echinacea, vitamin C and yin chiao, I seek out every homeopathic remedy Community Market can offer, and I dutifully turn down all social engagements. But I’m just not getting better. And after my fourth night waking up with a mouth dry as desert sand because I can’t breathe through my nose, I’m ready to cross that most daunting Rubicon: going to the doctor without insurance.

I start by calling the low-income community health facilities, even though it means a trip out to Guerneville or Occidental. They have no openings. An experience at the Santa Rosa walk-in clinic listening to a little girl scream about her broken misshapen leg for over an hour resulted in a firm vow never to return. I’m ready to pound another liter of water and head back into a hot shower when the woman on the phone at the new Sebastopol Health Clinic (whose hours I can’t make) informs me that there is a clinic at Wal-Mart.

“Oh, well, thanks,” I say, eager to rinse out that bad-tasting suggestion as quickly as possible. “Well,” she answers doubtfully, “they’re probably your best bet.”

Half a bottle of all-natural nasal spray later, I find myself next to Wal-Mart’s in-house McDonald’s, in a waiting area the size of my bathroom, checking out the menu of services that, like its neighbor, are alarmingly cheap. A flu shot for only $19. Strep-throat test for a mere $29. An entire STD screening for the bargain price of $199. And what I’ve come for: a visit with the doctor for—drum roll, please—only $59! It’s not a typo. It’s real. And it’s the best deal I’ve seen in a doctor’s office since free lollipops.

Still, I feel that familiar anger turning my stomach. Why does Wal-Mart have to force its way into yet another sector of human life? They already sell products cheaper than any other retailer can ever afford to. They develop your film, fill your eyeglass prescription, feed you Big Macs, French-manicure your nails, even provide organic produce. Is nothing sacred?

The release form explains that the relationship between Wal-Mart and the clinic, aptly called Quick Health, is one of “landlord and tenant.” Wal-Mart simply loans its reputation and real estate. Since people have caught on to having their oil changed at Wal-Mart, why not have a wart or two removed? Enough people make use of the clinic that they, too, can afford to offer rock-bottom prices that no health facility can rival. As I fill out my chart, I can’t help but feel that I am not only privy to, but an agent for, corporate dominance.

After reading the ingredients in the Valentine’s candy on display 10 feet from my chair, I am ushered in to see a jovial doctor who takes his time listening to my symptoms, my lungs and my heartbeat. He nods understandingly as I gently plea for no additional tests. He tells me I have a mild case of bronchitis and explains how to use the inhaler. He prescribes an antibiotic and, when I lament the inevitable yeast infection, he instructs me on how to make my own yogurt.

And here is where I experience the guilt. I realize that I bear judgment in my psyche the way children bear dirty hands. Given the circumstances of crisis capitalism and curiosity, respectively, maybe it’s only natural. I’d assumed that a doctor who worked for a clinic associated with Wal-Mart couldn’t have progressive ideas. Perhaps I am justified in condemning the store as an emblem of exploitation, but surely I must remember that the human experience is not plastic, but organic, nuanced, complex. After all, might someone be judging me for coming here in the first place, despite my informed objection?

An hour after arrival, I’ve been seen by a doctor, had my prescription filled, and even picked up a pack of pens—all for less than a brand-new pair of Nikes.

As I head out into the brightly lit parking lot, I realize that this has been the easiest, most gratifying (and sociologically fascinating) trip to the doctor I’ve ever experienced. I realize that when it comes down to it—it being my thin wallet, of course, and, well, my health—there is really no way of getting around the truth. Wal-Mart did not save my life. But damn if it didn’t give me what every hard-working American deserves. And damn if I didn’t feel, dare I even say it, lucky.

Jessica Dur teaches English and history at Nonesuch School in Sebastopol and is looking forward to traveling around Turkey this summer.

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