A price I’m willing to pay

I sat in the hospital waiting room, half asleep, with only the discomfort of the yellow plastic chair needling me awake. I stretched and looked at my reflection in the window. My pale face was marked by black bags beneath my eyes.

Next to me sat an old married couple. The man was quietly joking around, laughing at his own punchlines. The woman, with lips like straight lines, impatiently checked the clock.

“Stop worrying,” he said. “Think about it this way — if I die, you will be the one who gets all my money. It’s not much, but-”

“Shut up, Carlo, just shut up.” The woman’s voice was shaky. Carlo smiled softly, then lightly stretched his right leg. He grimaced.

In the corner of the room, painted a calming blue, was a 30-something woman with medical bills in her hand. She was quietly weeping, tears streaming down her cheeks. Next to her was a little girl, no older than 5, with pale skin, and big, tired eyes. She squeezed a tiny dinosaur in her hands.

My host mom, Jamie, sat next to me. She looked through papers — medical bills, appointments, prescriptions — and filed them into colorful folders.

“Did this visit cost you something?” I asked.

“Of course, it was about $150,” she said. “It’s not cheap to be pregnant around here, and I’m not even talking about food.” She grinned, but her eyes didn’t smile.

As we left the hospital, I took one last look at the married couple, curled up together. I glanced at the young mother crying in the corner of the room.

“This is the place where the ambulance takes you?” I asked as we walked through the dark parking lot to her car.

“I hope the ambulance isn’t too expensive,” she said. “I’m just afraid I’ll have to drive myself when I’m in labor.”

I didn’t understand this at all — this idea of putting yourself and your baby at risk, for fear of costly medical bills, is insane.

Coming from the Czech Republic, I can’t comprehend American health care and its tendency to place enormous, often insurmountable, medical expenses on its citizens.

In my country, we have free health care for all. We don’t have to worry about paying medical bills or going into debt for falling ill or getting pregnant.

Everybody is amazed when I tell them about my country and its perks — at least until I tell them where we get the money for our care: 10-percent higher taxes.

That’s when the disbelief arrives.

“How can you pay for someone else’s care? What if you don’t need health care? That’s a waste of money!”

When they ask this, I wish they could see my memories. I would take them back to the three months my mom was in the hospital. She was ill and no one, not even the doctors, knew the cause. The small spots that appeared on her arms a few weeks before had transformed into mean, red blotches that devoured her flesh.

The doctors took skin samples. Once, they did this in front of me. I cried so violently they had to give me a shot to calm me down.

We visited her every other day in the hospital, bringing her books and her favorite snacks. She only pretended to eat them so as not to worry us, then threw them in the trash can. We would smile and tell her about school and family.

But our smiles were only on the outside.

It was hard for my dad, who worked until 7 p.m. each weekday, to take care of the household chores — cooking, laundry, cleaning. It was hard for me to focus on school. I was scared my mom was going to die.

We had plenty of things to worry about, but money wasn’t one of them.

We didn’t have to think about medical expenses at all. We were able to just focus on mom, our household and keeping our family together.

Now, when I think back on that time, I can’t help but picture Carlo in the hospital waiting room, joking with the nurses while his wife frets silently beside him. I see the young girl who needs medical help, and her mom desperately trying to provide it.

How can I pay for someone else’s care?

By being a decent human being.

It’s a price I’m willing to pay.