Here stood a neat old cedar shingled building, a medical clinic, with well worn wooden floorboards and hard wood sliding doors with glass panes you would have to open by hand. Now it's gone forever and with it a little bit of the quaint character of the neighborhood. It will no doubt be replaced by a more quake-resistant, fireproof structure but I'll still miss the old building. It reminded me a lot of the little wooden hospital where my son was born. It too is gone now, a physical chunk of our own personal history torn away and discarded onto the scrap heap of life.
I remember the night of his birth like it was yesterday. It was the first time I had stepped foot into the birthing room of that little neighborhood OB/GYN hospital and I was kind of shocked. I remember thinking it wasn't anywhere in the same neighborhood as clean let alone the sterile environment I had expected to see.
The first thing that met my eyes was the green tiled wall that had this enormous meandering crack running from the ceiling down to the floor. Sticking out of the wall was a huge rusty old sink that really would have been more at home in a janitor's closet, but there it was and leaning next to it was something I could only describe at that moment as serendipitous.
It was a bucket and mop, thank God! I soooo wanted to put both to good use in scrubbing the place until it was immaculate but I just didn’t possess the linguistic skills to ask if I could borrow them for a moment or two. Besides there was so much commotion going on around my wife, Em, and my emerging new born son that nobody seemed to even notice the imaginative hand gestures I was using to communicate my desperate desire.
It wasn't like this was the first time for me either. I knew my way around the maternity ward pretty well. Just a few years before, I had front row seats at a state-of-the art birthing room in a lovely hospital across the sea in the City of Baltimore. I wasn't the only one there of course. There was Em, who was the star of the show until she got upstaged by the baby, assisted by my mother-in-law, a team of at least four or five crack medical experts and all the latest digital gadgetry you could imagine.
There was also a bit more theatre about the whole stateside process than there was in Japan. The bed on which Em laid was covered half-way down by a curtain so everything that was going on at the business end remained somewhat of a miraculous mystery. When my son finally decided to make his appearance, everything moved along like clockwork.
Like Doug Henning magically producing a dove from beneath a handkerchief, in a matter of minutes we were handed a fresh, brand spanking new, sparkly clean infant, which is how I thought they came. So you can imagine my surprise in discovering otherwise upon stepping back into what seemed like the dark ages when it came time for the arrival of my next child in Japan.
It all happened in kind of a blink of an eye and quite unceremoniously at that. I turned my head away from the cracked wall for a moment and whoa! There he was spat out onto the lower end of the stainless steel table, that Em was lying on, covered from head to toe with gook (which is not a medical term). There were no curtains or mystery involved, just a lot of blood and screaming, mostly mine.
Anyway the whole ordeal, a.k.a. the miracle of childbirth, was over before I knew it and what really needed cleaning up was my newborn son. After getting a look at the mess that covered him, I completely forgot about the condition of the room. I guess everything is relative, especially when it comes to the birth of your child.
Looking back on it now, perhaps the biggest difference between the birthing experiences in the US and Japan were the price tags. The bill for the eleven hour, overnight, hospital stay (that’s all my HMO would cover at the time) in Baltimore was staggeringly more expensive than the standard week-long stay in the maternity hospital in Yokohama. Yet the biggest shock of all was that the doctor's bill in Japan was practically all covered by national health insurance. I can still remember the feeling of sheer joy that had come over me to learn that the out-of-pocket expenses would be next to nothing. At the time, the national health insurance payment set me back about the same amount as the employee contribution portion for my group HMO plan when I was living and working in America. The near-full coverage came as a total shock and the second best news of the year.
I imagine that when you give birth in the US, you are billed for all the high-tech gizmos, etc., which of course can come in handy. On the other hand - the real shocker may be that, among the world's most developed nations, the U.S. (with all its cutting edge medical technology) tops the infant mortality chart. At the other end of the spectrum lies Japan, ranking near the very bottom with less than three deaths per one thousand live births (only Monaco does better). What makes this picture even more puzzling is that according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the dozens of nations that score better than the US actually spend less on health care. One possible answer to this riddle might be that the lower infant mortality rates and cheaper prices are born from social welfare systems that put prenatal care and people in general before profit. But that really shouldn't come as shocking news to anyone.