Last summer the inimitable Taki and I were staying under the same roof at the London house of our friend Natasha. I have loved our angelically guileless hostess for a quarter of a century, Taki since she was a baby, but all this is just a pompous way of relating that, like I this fateful summer, some months earlier Natasha had had a life-threatening brush with the heirs of Hippocrates. I recounted my Italian experience in last month’s column. Natasha’s had taken her from London to Los Angeles, where she was successfully operated on by a world-class luminary of a surgeon at the cost of $60,000.
Then there was the postoperative care, and that is really why I’ve mentioned Taki’s compatriot. Hippocrates was probably spinning in his grave. The postoperative care at Cedars-Sinai—in other words, a nurses’ station within the patient’s yelling distance—had cost our friend, or else her private insurance company, $60,000 a night. That is to say, the same amount of money that a one-of-a-kind luminary of a surgeon had charged Natasha for performing a complex lifesaving operation of several hours’ duration. After three nights Natasha moved into a suite in the Beverly Hills Hotel and engaged a team of private nurses to look after her, whereupon, by comparison with Cedars-Sinai, as guilelessly she put it, “all of a sudden it felt like everything was free.”
Anyway, I have now totted up the cost to the British taxpayer of saving your columnist from certain death, and at Cedars-Sinai rates that figure is three million dollars. Apart from the biopsy of an infected vertebral disc carried out by a world-class specialist, three MRIs at $1,500 a pop, and innumerable other X-rays, ultrasounds, scans, and tests, this included an entire month’s hospital stay. I came to the National Health Service hospital off the street, I am not insured, and my only fixed address is in Sicily, yet salvation, in the socialist paradise which, a generation ago, had been Aneurin Bevan’s vision of Britain, did not cost me a penny.
Let me tell you about the stay itself, which from the start reminded me of the definition of luxury that Kipling had brought back with him from India—namely, being shaved in his sleep by a manservant who would creep into his bedroom at the crack of dawn, razor and foaming brush at the ready. The black, Puerto Rican, or possibly Mexican nurses of Cedars-Sinai costing $60,000 a night had nothing on St. Mary’s Paddington, where the white, Anglo-Saxon, and possibly even Protestant woman who cleaned my bedside table every morning asked me in the tones of subservient hauteur we know from the upstairs-downstairs kind of black-and-white English film, “You do like having your fountain pen to the left of the flower vase, don’t you?”
I kid you not. I lay in bed all but immobilized, yet every week my life-affirmingly lucrative column for the Russian-language website Snob.ru had to be ready by Friday. The good nurses of Valentine Ellis ward outfitted me with a special pivoting table for my computer, so that their patient could type away, more or less with his nose, in the best tradition of handicapee weepies. Laura, the Rumanian from Pharmacy, she of the antibiotic supply, insisted on having my autograph on a prescription blank, “so that I can paste it into one of your books later.” And the Finnish beauty whom I met as she squeezed a yard of plastic tubing inside me, to let those antibiotics do to my spine what Mussolini did to the Italian marshes, came up with the one diabolically clever thing to tell me about cigarettes that I craved to hear so as not to smoke them again. Anu said smoking was a good thing, “but at your age it is certainly better than stopping.”
I know I sound like a 1930’s fellow traveler on Comintern propaganda steroids, extolling the virtues of the Soviet penal, education, and healthcare systems after a month’s stay in an apartment overlooking Red Square. I know that, somewhere out there, there is a man with some phalanxes of his fingers missing, who could say a few things to disabuse me of my enthusiasm for the land of the rising sun. In fact, it is enough to open any British newspaper to a random page to be thus disabused, as horror stories about the National Health Service are a significant part of what journalism in England has been about since anybody can remember.
What can I say? I suppose I was lucky. Certainly I was not the poor sweet teenager who had died of criminally misdiagnosed meningitis, nor the housewife whose untreated injury with a paring knife had put her in a coma, nor the old man who had come down with the flu and never got up. Yet are not all systems imperfect, are not all governments propagandistic, all newspapers sensationalist? All I know—and believe me, it takes some doing on my part to say this out loud—is that I owe my life to socialism.