Excerpt: 'The Healing of America,' by T.R. Reid

Read an excerpt from T.R. Reid's new book on health care in the U.S.

ByABC News via logo
August 11, 2009, 10:21 AM

Aug. 24, 2009— -- It's a topic that has dominated the headlines and President Obama's time for months now: health care in America.

While the president's plan has recently come under fire from Republicans and voters alike, author T.R. Reid took a tour of other countries to explore their answers to the health care conundrum and find out how the U.S. could learn from their shortcomings and successes.

By talking to experts, from government officials to doctors, Reid discovered inspiration in the ways some countries can give their people quality health care at an affordable cost.

Read an excerpt of "The Healing of America" below, and head to the "GMA" Library for more good reads.

Mrs. Rama came sweeping into my hospital roomwith the haughty grandeur of a Brahmin empress, wearing a salmonpink sari and leading a retinue of assistants, interpreters, and equipmentbearers. It wasn't exactly medical equipment they were carrying, becauseMrs. Rama wasn't exactly a doctor. Still, her professional services wereconsidered an essential element of the medical regimen at India's famousArya Vaidya Chikitsalayam, the Mayo Clinic of traditional Indian medicine.

Indeed, Mrs. Rama's diagnostic work is covered by Indian medicalinsurance. As she set up her equipment—on a painted wooden board,she carefully arranged a collection of shells, rocks, and statuettes ofHindu gods—Mrs. Rama told me that she was connected to the clinic'sDepartment of Yajnopathy, an ancient Indian specialty that roughlyequates to astrology. Her medical role was to ascertain my place in thecosmos; in that way, she could determine whether the timing was propitiousfor me to be healed. Any fool could see, she explained in matter-of-fact tones, that it would be a mistake to proceed with medical treatment if the stars in heaven were aligned against me.

For all her majestic self-assurance, Mrs. Rama did not immediatelyinspire confidence in her patient. After asking some basic questions, sheshuffled the stones and statuettes around her checkerboard and launchedinto my diagnosis. "In the summer of 1986, you got married," shedeclared firmly. Well, not exactly. In the summer of 1986, my wife andI celebrated our fourteenth wedding anniversary; by then we had threekids, a dog, and a minivan. "In 1998," she went on, "you were far fromhome and were treated for serious illness." Well, not exactly. OurAmerican family was, in fact, living in London in 1998; but in thatwhole year, I never saw a doctor.

Mrs. Rama kept talking, but I stopped listening. To me, the stonesand shells and statues all seemed preposterous. Still, I kept my mouthshut. If Indian medicine required yajnopathic analysis before healthcare could begin (and Mrs. Rama did eventually conclude that thetiming was propitious for treatment), that was fine with me. I was willingto go along, in pursuit of the greater goal. For I had traveled to theArya Vaidya clinic—it's in the state of Tamil Nadu, at the southern tipof the subcontinent, where the Bay of Bengal meets the ArabianSea—on a kind of medical pilgrimage. I was on a global quest, searchingfor solutions to two different health problems, one personal andone of national dimensions.

On the personal level, I was hoping to find some relief for my ailingright shoulder, which I bashed badly decades ago as a seaman, secondclass, in the U.S. Navy. In 1972, a navy surgeon (literally) screwed thejoint back together, and that repair job worked fine for a while. Overtime, though, the stainless-steel screw in my clavicle loosened; myshoulder grew increasingly painful and hard to move. By the first decadeof the twenty-first century, I could no longer swing a golf club. Icould barely reach up to replace a lightbulb overhead or get the wineglassesfrom the top shelf. Yearning for surcease from sorrow, I tookthat bum shoulder to doctors and clinics—including Mrs. Rama'schikitsalayam—in countries around the world.

The quest began at home. I went to a brilliant American orthopedist,Dr. Donald Ferlic, a specialist who had skillfully repaired anotherbroken joint of mine a few years back. Dr. Ferlic proposed a surgicalintervention that reflects precisely the high-tech ethos of contemporaryAmerican medicine. This operation—it is known as a total shoulderarthroplasty, Procedure No. 080.81 on the National Center forHealth Statistics' roster of "clinical modifications"—would require theorthopedist to take a surgical saw, cut off the shoulder joint that Godgave me, and replace it with a man-made contraption of silicon andtitanium. This new arthroplastic joint would be hammered into myupper arm and then cemented to my clavicle. The doctor was confidentthat this would reduce my shoulder pain—orthopedic surgeonstend to be confident by nature—but I had serious reservations aboutProcedure No. 080.81. The saws and hammers and glue made theprocedure sound rather drastic. It would cost tens of thousands of dollars(like most major medical procedures in the United States, the exactprice was veiled in mystery). The best prognosis I could get was thatthe operation might or might not give me more shoulder movement.