Brain-tumor jokes

I first noticed the left side of my face was frozen while brushing my teeth. A tingling sensation overtook my gums, then I looked in the mirror and couldn’t smile. Weird. Maybe I was just too hungover? But it persisted: My face was jacked.

This led to my first and only emergency-room visit as an adult. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and recall feeling anxious, scared—and frustrated I didn't have a doctor. After hours of waiting, an ER doc finally explained that I likely had Bell's palsy, a paralysis of the face, but would need a brain scan to ensure it wasn't a tumor.

This was during the infamous Kings-Lakers playoff series, and the ER tech was a shit-talking, if professional, Lakers fan. He put my head in the center of a giant doughnut-shaped machine, scanned some pictures and called me over:

“See that thing in your brain right there,” he pointed. “Oh, man.” Then he paused.


“It's nothing!” he said, laughing.

This past month, while spending a dozen or so hours in Sacramento ERs for this week's cover story (see “ER nights,” page 13), I reflected often on this experience: the uncertainty, the waiting—and the bills (brain scans aren't cheap). The ER is vital, and the doctors and nurses are excellent—when they're not cracking brain-tumor jokes. But the ER is also broken.

New reports show that more than 40 percent of Sacramento ER visits last year were not needed. ER care is today more about moving patients through and less about the follow through. This squanders billions of dollars and feeds a health crisis.

Meanwhile, Obamacare will insure millions of new Californians next year, which is a once-in-a-lifetime window for real change in the health-care world.

It's exciting. But it's also a little scary.