Last year I had an annoying medical issue that cost me several thousand dollars to explore. I say “explore" because the problem never got solved, at least not by the two physicians I originally consulted. Nonetheless, I had to pay for the relief that I sought, but never got. The biggest expense was for the CAT scan, which proved to be not particularly helpful.
People routinely complain that if your mechanic doesn't fix your car, or if the middle C is still flat after the piano tuner's visit, you shouldn't have to pay. But medicine isn't like car repair, because there are many more things that can go wrong with the human body. Especially if it is an upscale foreign import. As a consumer and a patient, you simply have to accept that, in the world of medicine, sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn't. But either way, you have to pay the shaman for his services.
So when my bills from the doctors and the radiology center came, I paid them, even though the consultations were a waste of time, the prescribed medications were useless, and the diagnoses were incorrect. Then I went out and found someone who could actually fix the problem.
About six months after my last procedure, I got a bill for around $50 from the guy who stood by the CAT scan machine while it was checking my ears for structural effects or audiophonic anomalies. The CAT scan was administered last August; the ancillary bill for supervising the procedure arrived in January. I don't know why I didn't get this bill right away, but I didn't. Apparently there was some sort of computer glitch back at Radiology Central and the bill got sent out months late. The woman from the radiology unit was very apologetic. I understood. These things happen. Not to worry.
To be scrupulously fair, fifty bucks is not going to break the bank. It's a piddling number. It's not the end of the world. And the guy watching the imaging machine while it took pictures of the insides of my head certainly did his job in a highly professional fashion and definitely deserves his money. Yet, somehow, the whole thing rankled. Since I had the CAT scan in August of the previous year, and the bill didn't arrive until January, it meant that part of the bill for the procedure was arriving more than five months after the event.
It is a cornerstone of our legal system that the condemned are entitled to a speedy trial and, hopefully, speedy sentencing. When dealing with physicians, I almost always think of myself as "condemned." This is particularly true in the case of proctologists. As such, I want "swift and immediate justice," a concept all Americans revere. Put another way, I want to get put out of my misery ASAP.
That's where the five-month-old bill for fifty bucks really gets up my nose. When I have an unsatisfactory experience—medical, musical, culinary, romantic—I like to get the corpse in the ground by sunset. I don't want to be reminded that I consulted the wrong doctor, submitted to the wrong procedure, dated the wrong girl, ate the wrong tabouli—and find out about it long after the embarrassing incident or nightmarish assignation or horrible meal.
When you get a bill long after a personal or medical or even automotive debacle, you feel as if you're being taunted from beyond the grave. It's like a girlfriend calling you six months after you broke up to say, "I forgot to mention that I hate your record collection, your mom wears hideous clothes, and all your friends are jerks." It's like getting a bill from a restaurant where you had a crummy meal months and months earlier, accompanied by the message: "Sorry, that'll be another buck and a half; we forgot to charge for the rancid coleslaw." It's like getting an email in January from someone who fired you last August: "And another thing: Those red suspenders look pathetic on a man your age!"
A bill that is not sent to you in timely fashion is like a V-2 that explodes 15 years after the war is over. It's like the other shoe dropping years after the first one hit the ground. It's like belting a grand slam and being told months later that, upon careful review of the tape, the ball landed foul and you are not getting credited for the four runs batted in.
What makes all this so annoying is that it forces you to exhume the cadaver of a person you didn't even like, just when you'd started to put the moldy old stiff out of your mind for good. It's like a delayed-reaction medication that gives you heartburn six months after you had your gall bladder removed. It's like a punch you thought you'd ducked in August that lands on your chin the following January.
It's like . . . well, you get the idea.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of One for the Books.