Second Thought: Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A near-drowning makes life insurance pass before your eyes.


A couple of months ago I found myself on the verge of drowning in the Gulf of Mexico. The skiff I was in capsized and tossed me into a rough ocean with no life preserver. It refused to sink, so I climbed onto the hull.
I was 40 miles from the mainland. We had embarked on a company-sponsored, three-day fishing trip on an 85-foot boat out of Biloxi, Miss. Once the main vessel dropped anchor, we were provided smaller skiffs to fish out of. That morning, I wound up on a skiff by myself and got caught out in bad weather. High waves and rain fouled the skiff’s engine and then started to fill the craft with water. I couldn’t bail fast enough to keep the sea out. I tried the motor again, but it wouldn’t engage. Next thing I knew, I was flailing in the Gulf.
It was windy and cold, the sky gray with rain. I clung to the hull of the skiff as best I could while the three- to five-foot swells battered me. Each time I tried to raise myself up to survey my surroundings, the whitecaps swept me off, forcing me to swim back.
After five hours, my situation worsened considerably. I had resigned myself to a long haul, maybe clinging to the hull overnight or for a couple of days. But accidental seawater ingestion began to take its toll. I experienced diarrhea and vomiting and began to dehydrate. I became hypothermic. I kept thinking I’d see land or drift into a shipping lane, but there was nothing but waves.
I had two moments of profound discovery.
The first was my realization of the ocean’s indifference. There I was, off the grid, stripped of the various security and convenience apparatuses that most of rely on to exist. I was alone and practically helpless, and Nature was oblivious. Sometimes we forget we’re not her only project.
My second revelation was a Willy Loman moment. As I desperately clung to the stubborn hull, it occurred to me that, just like the Death of a Salesman protagonist, I was worth more dead than alive. If I let go and just drifted off, abandoned my breath, and embraced the cold Gulf, my family stood to collect more insurance money than I could possibly save even if I worked for the rest of my life. And this was before our economic recession became a depression. One high seas nap and my children’s college education would be covered. Our cars and house could be paid off. By leaving myself behind, my wife and kids could get ahead.
For better or worse, brute instinct kicked in, and I survived. About eight hours into the ordeal, a Coast Guard HH-65C rescue helicopter fished me out of the drink. The Coasties swaddled me in blankets and told me that in another hour or so I might have drifted into the Louisiana marshes where I could have walked to safety — if I made it past the alligators.
At the hospital, between intravenous hydration and warming blankets, a doctor told me that if my core temperature had dropped another degree or two, my body would have seized up.
Now that I’m home, everybody reminds me how lucky I was, and I suppose they’re right. But as I go over the resultant $7,000 hospital bill and $1,200 ambulance invoice and prepare to do battle with my insurance company, Willy’s idea looms again. The grass is always greener, even in a graveyard.
I’m sure there was a time in this country when, if you worked hard, you could get ahead and afford things and be financially secure. Hospital stays didn’t force folks into bankruptcy and, as It’s a Wonderful Life suggests each Christmas, dying didn’t make things better. But things have changed. The George Baileys of the world are viewed as suckers and the Mr. Potters run things.
Our “living wage” is a joke, and the only way to get ahead is by prostituting our principles and spirit. If we have health insurance, it probably doesn’t cover much. And if we can afford life insurance, the best way to come out ahead may be to die prematurely. It’s almost funny. While we’re alive, insurance companies want us treated as little as possible until we’re dying. Then, when we’re dying, they do everything they can to keep us alive until our benefits run out. In the end, anything the hospitals or insurance companies don’t grab gets sucked up by nursing homes where we’re virtually assured of dying as docilely and pennilessly as possible.
It’s been two months since I was brought ashore, but I’m still adrift. We all are. And there doesn’t seem to be any land in sight.
E.R. Bills is a Fort Worth freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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