The Medical Tourist; How my shoulder sent me to China.

by Laura Moser ,  Slate | 2005-12-06

Always lift from your knees, and never sprint a mile through the Atlanta airport with 75 pounds of luggage heaped on your right shoulder. That's the lesson I learned after making that run last October to avoid missing a connecting flight. Ever since, I have lived in constant pain, a pain that radiates from my right shoulder and surges down the length of my spine. In hopes of obliterating this pain, I have exhausted the bulk of my resources, both financial and imaginative. I have given up typing, eating out, sitting through movies, and thinking for any prolonged period about any topic other than my body. And still the pain only intensifies.

It seems my only recourse is fantasy, and most nights I lull myself to sleep with fairy tales of resurrection and escape. I fantasize about sprouting robot limbs, or visiting an authentic, fin-de-siècle sanitarium. Not just visiting one, actually, but taking up residency there, like Hans Castorp in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, who extends his three-week trip to the Berghof International Sanitarium to seven years. Regularly served meals, toilets disinfected daily, existential small talk with mink-wrapped contessas—really, I see no flaw in the tapestry.

In the late 19th century, with the growth of both commercial travel and tuberculosis, the sanitarium emerged as a ubiquitous cultural institution. Today, it is once again common to journey abroad in search of a cure. But while Hans Castorp's retreat was populated by obscure aristocrats and overfed dowagers, the new breed of medical self-exiles is by definition middle-class. For almost 10 years, millions of people have traveled great distances for health care, primarily because they cannot afford the same treatment at home. As the ranks of the uninsured in this country continue to swell, more and more Americans are becoming medical tourists, buying tickets to East Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and South Africa. They go for procedures both urgent and elective, from liposuction to heart surgery, lid lifts to total knee replacements.

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