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Suddenly Deaf: Health Care And Financial Independence

I’m generally an extremely healthy person. I’ve never come close to ever maxing out my sick leave at work (hardly ever using it), and the only time I’ve ever stayed overnight in a hospital was to give birth to my son. I’m not allergic to anything, and I generally check “no” all the way down on medical questionnaires. All in all, outside of childbirth, my medical bills have hardly shown up in our expense breakdown from year to year. That all changed at 29, when I suddenly lost hearing in my right ear.

A year ago, I came down with a high fever (102-104 degrees) for a better part of a week. It was bad enough that I eventually did call the nurse hotline and would have gone in the following day had the fever not finally broken on its own. After the fever was gone, I expected everything to go back to normal like it usually does after one of the rare bouts of sicknesses that hit me every couple of years.

For a couple days, everything did seem to be fine. After all, it was just a one time fever, and I was a very healthy twenty nine year old. Nothing health wise had affected me for very long.

This time though, something was different. My right ear started to feel full of cotton and I couldn’t really hear out of it. So being the kind of person who reserves the doctor and urgent care for real emergencies, I first tried to clean out some ear wax (there wasn’t really any), and then just to wait it out. I had no real reason to think there was something really wrong, because there never was.

Finally though, I realized that things weren’t getting better on their own, so I called urgent care and made an appointment to be seen the next day. From that appointment, I was sent to have a follow up with an ENT (Ear, Nose, Throat) specialist. They had me come in right away, because apparently hearing issues are generally addressed as quickly as possible.

Once the doctor had seen me, I was sent down the hall for the first hearing test I’d had since the standard one you’re given in elementary school. He let me know that there was nothing superficially wrong with my eardrum or any other visible part of my ear, so the next step was to confirm how bad the hearing loss was (I knew it was pretty bad already, but they had to determine how bad that meant – not just “I can’t even hear when I rub two fingers together right next to my ear”).

At least my left ear works fine

Once it was confirmed that the hearing loss was extreme, I got immediately put on a steroid pill regiment while going through additional tests, to include an MRI, to confirm there were no serious underlying causes for the abrupt hearing loss (there weren’t). The steroids did eventually bring my hearing up about halfway back to normal, but even the next step of steroid injections didn’t improve it beyond that.

At this point, the only improvement I’ll see is if I eventually break down and get a hearing aid. I’m managing okay for now, but that may be a route I take one day, and the only option if I want to have “normal” hearing ever again. I didn’t expect to ring in my 30s with a permanent health issue, but it is what it is.

Health Insurance

I am fortunate to work for a company with some great health benefits, so my copays aren’t extreme and most clinics in our area are “in network.” I’ve never had to pick a second or third choice place because of out of network status. We also live in an area with great healthcare, so there are a lot of options. Within the city itself, we have a top national hospital and huge clusters of clinics that surround it. The ENT, hearing test center, and the MRI facility were all in the same building. We’ve lived in places where this certainly hasn’t been the case, so I do appreciate that my health issue waited until we were in a more “convenient” location to take care of it.

I’ve talked to people who travel hours to get tests and work done in our area due to the lack of healthcare options (and high prices) in their towns, so it is definitely one upside to living in a HCOL area.

More here than just pretty trails

The Importance Of Flexibility

During the months long ordeal, I had at minimum one appointment a week at the hospital complex, but since I’m off work around 2PM every day, I was able to work my schedule so I didn’t have to miss work. The process was stressful and overwhelming to begin with, but I didn’t have to deal with asking for time off work – with or without pay.

Outside of full retirement, I do have a schedule that allows for regular appointments when the need arises, but having to go so frequently really took a toll on me. Dealing with hearing loss was upsetting by itself, but having to figure it out on top of work would have been that much harder. Again and again, I keep finding reasons why cutting my hours at work was the right thing to do.

Cost Breakdown

While the total cost wasn’t overwhelming, it was a significant amount of money for an unexpected health issue. If I do ever go the route of getting a hearing aid, the cost will be in the thousands. My grandmother has them, and even through Medicaid, the cost is astronomical.

Procedure Cost
Urgent Care Appointment $55.00
Initial ENT $30.00
Second ENT $30.00
Steroid Pills $57.00
Hearing Test (4) $220.00
MRI $861.00
Steroid Injections (3) $150.00
Final ENT Appointment $30.00
Total $1,433.00

Emergency Funds And Cash Flow

Thankfully, as we live below our means and generally have a decent savings in an emergency fund, I didn’t have to make any choices based on cost alone. Since the cost wasn’t astronomical, we paid for it out of pocket. While we weren’t in the position a year ago, our 50% savings rate now makes it so we can cash flow an event like that without having to dip into our savings at all.

If we didn’t have the funds to deal with unexpected events, it would have been difficult to agree to all of the tests and procedures necessary. I could have foregone the MRI, but it confirmed that there were no underlying health issues causing the deafness. The peace of mind that came from confirming there was no worse problem was well worth it.

Financial Independence And Health Care

While many FIRE proponents live on $25,000 – $30,000 a year and have very low health care costs, it doesn’t take much to rack up big numbers with medical care. We are quite a few years away from hitting financial independence, and we aren’t sure that we’ll ever want to fully retire, so I’m not as concerned with what things look like in the United States right now. However, if you are within a couple of years of early retirement, I would strongly suggest reading through OurNextLife’s articles on health care. I’m hopeful that things will work out long term in this county, but we are nowhere near a sustainable system at this point.

This experience with an unexpected health problem has further solidified my desire to reach financial independence. Regardless of what we hope to do with work in the future, our health and career are not guaranteed. No matter what life throws at us, we will be ready on the financial side of things.

While being partially deaf in one ear is extremely minor in the scheme of things, it has impacted my life more than I would have anticipated. I have to make sure to walk to the right of people so I can hear them clearly. I only use one headphone to listen to music or podcasts because the right side is too muffled to understand. I have a hard time talking to my son in the backseat when I drive him around. Busy restaurants are no longer fun because the loud background noise makes it almost impossible to follow conversations. I have to pay attention to where I sit in work meetings so I can hear what is said (and still sometimes miss points).

I didn’t expect to be 29 years old and understand this post on #HearingPrivilege, but life throws curve balls sometimes. I appreciate that I still can hear as well as I do, and that my big frustrating health problem doesn’t even come close to what so many people deal with every day. The pursuit of financial independence is about freedom and choice to make the best decision possible for the situation you’re in, outside of the money factor. I hope to be healthy and interested in continuing to work for many years to come, but I want to be prepared no matter what.

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