Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Before You Panic About the Pandemic

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

A couple of days ago, my boss called to see if I would be willing to work a few extra hours this week because the ER was short staffed. Against my first instinct, which is always to say “No”, I agreed and told her I would work the four hour slot that was open today. Imagine my surprise as I walked in and saw my co-workers wearing masks – the ones we use to prevent us from inhaling any number of viruses – and looking for all the world like they would rather be anywhere else.

One girl quickly pulled down her mask to talk. “Did you hear about the positive cases of Swine Flu?" Her face was tense and I knew there was going to be a good story – I just wasn't sure I wanted to hear it. She told me that in my home state today the CDC had confirmed 3 cases of Swine Flu (2 of those 3 coming through our hospital) and that now seemingly everyone in the area who had a cough or fever was coming to the ER to get checked out. Earlier (I missed it because I don't have TV) the governor had held a press conference to discuss the 3 confirmed cases and warned that more were certain to follow. Now, individuals were scared and coming to the ER; primary care providers were also getting into the act and sending their patients to us so we could test them.

To make matters worse, hospital personnel who had any contact with the confirmed cases in our facility were also being sent to us for evaluation – some from work still in scrubs. We were called by news crews and reporters; the regional Emergency Medical Services office called to see if the rumor was true that we had closed (really - I cannot make this stuff up). The phone never stopped ringing.

By 6:00PM I was wishing I had not been such a team player and agreed to work the shift.

I don't know how many flu swabs we did or even how many people we saw, because my 4 hours there were a complete blur. I went over the same instructions with patients, answering as best I could their questions and trying to allay their fears of certain and impending death from Swine Flu. I talked to our infection control officer, the CDC and any number of potential patients on the phone. Now, as I sit here, my feet tired and my frustrations high, I am happy it has become someone else's problem. Now, I am happy that I am not going back to that nightmare tomorrow.

At 6:45 PM I was notified that 1 of the positive 3 cases was a mistake. My understanding is that the other 2 confirmed cases are still actually pending confirmation. Someone must have jumped the gun. The result of that little mistake was chaos in my ER for the better part of the day.

What I wanted to do all afternoon was tell people, "Look, just go home. You don't have to worry. Most of you don't even appear to be ill. We only want REALLY sick people in here. The rest of you are just risking exposure to something you don't currently have." But that would never fly. People don't think about things like prevention when they are already convinced they have something. And all of our patients today just "knew" they had the Swine Flu. They knew all about it because they saw it on TV. Good for them.

As for me, the best thing I could think to do was to write this and pass along some advice to those interested. Here's the basics folks:

1. Don't panic - I cannot stress this enough
2. Wash your hands after you touch things in public areas and before you touch your face
3. Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze
4. Take it easy – rest when you are sick
5. Stay home from work or school so you don't become a vector of disease
6. Don't call the ER and ask us to tell you if we think you have Swine Flu – we have no idea and can't diagnose people over the phone

The CDC has good information on their site about the Swine Flu. Read it and help to limit the spread of the virus.

Oh, and don't come to the ER looking for me. I will be off for the next several days. And just to make sure I don't do anything stupid, I'm not answering any calls from my boss.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Kicking the Credit Card Habit

My name is John and I'm a recovering credit-aholic.

When I was younger (read: without children and less concerned about money) I had a habit of buying things with a credit card. It was not the smartest thing I ever did, and one day I found myself wondering just how I had managed to build such a huge amount of debt. So several years ago, my wife and I began the process of weaning ourselves off credit cards. We have managed to reduce our credit card debt to very reasonable levels today (though we still have balances) and we did it without taking out home equity loans to do so. We just worked harder at not buying stuff we didn't need and began to purchase only what we could pay for with cash. If the cash was not available, the item was not purchased. It seems we changed our ways just in time.

Last week I was sent a letter from Bank of America. They own one of the 2 credit card accounts I have. They wrote to notify me of a pending rate change – a big one. After more than 15 years, first with MBNA and later with Bank of America (BoA) following a buyout, I would have thought that perhaps someone there appreciated my business. But apparently not.

It seems BoA does not care that my outstanding balance is less than 25% of my available credit line. It would appear that my predictable and reliable monthly payments (on which I am never late) also don't matter to them. They have decided that effective May 2, 2009 my rate should be more than doubled from 8% to 19%. That seems a bit excessive to me for an account in good standing that is being paid without issue.

According to the notice, I had the option to refuse the increase in writing, which I did (and not in a nice way I may add). But refusing the increase means that any charge to the account from that moment on results in the higher rate being applied to current and future balances. Thus, the card came out of my wallet and I began to track down any automatic charges from places like Maine's Turnpike Authority that resupplies my EZPass account with the card. Luckily, this process was short and I was able to turn the automatic payment options off.

My balance is small enough that I can pay it off in a few months, which will be my focus from today forward. I will then cancel the account and never do business with BoA again.

I am left by the experience feeling more than angry. First of all, BoA received TARP funds in a tax-payer funded bailout for their losses. Now, they are coming after more of my money via a massive rate hike. There just never seems to be an end to their need for cash. Therefore, I can only deduce that they are in even more trouble than we have been led to believe. If BoA is in enough trouble that they are willing to sacrifice the future for today – because I am sure I will not be the only account holder they will lose as a result of this tremendous increase – then they must be looking at the very real possibility of not being around in a few years.

But they are not alone in their fear. The government is also very concerned that the financial industry is falling down around us, and will do almost anything to boost confidence in the banks. The recent “stress tests” the government conducted on the biggest banks in the country (BoA included) was mostly smoke and mirrors (see Nouriel Roubini's blogpost from April 13, 2009) and thus should not be relied upon for any accurate picture of the banks' stability.

But it's not just big banks that are in trouble. All financial companies are facing huge defaults on auto loans, mortgages and credit cards. No one appears to be immune in today's environment.

I have only one other credit card and that is through Discover. While I have been writing this post, I received a notice from them as well (ironic, no?) that also advised me of a rate hike on that account. While that one is not as steep (from 7% to 13%) I don't have a balance there to worry about. But that makes the next step that much easier. The letter canceling the account will be what I type as soon as I am finished here.

Like any addict in recovery, I have learned to live without my abused substance. Now, I will just take the final step and remove what I had considered to be an insurance policy from my wallet. It's long past time to operate strictly on a cash only basis.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. - Charles Darwin

The most successful people are those who are good at plan B. - James Yorke

I have always paid attention to the world around me, but over the last two years I have become a daily reader of financial and economic sites and blogs in addition to the several news sites I had always read. I have tried to learn as much as possible about the deteriorating economic situation around the world and its pending impact on individuals as well as nations. It has become like a train wreck from which I could not avert my eyes. My focus has been too intense at times, and my time spent reading and blogging has only increased as things have gotten worse. But recently, I stopped paying attention.

Over the last several weeks, I have been unable (or more accurately, unwilling) to watch the larger world around me as it has continued on its downward tack. I have also been unavailable to do so because the smaller world - specifically my world – has been through its own changes that took time to navigate and to understand. As I wrote here a couple of months ago, my wife's employer has been poised to layoff workers in an attempt to bring costs under control. We had been worried that her time there may be short, and so began the process of looking for a new job for her.

After finding a comparable job, albeit with significantly fewer benefits, she applied. After being interviewed, she was offered the position. She then began a very real and painful grieving process.

She was not happy to be leaving a facility where she had worked for 11 years. She was not happy to be forced into a decision she was not ready to make. She was not ready to leave those who had become a second family over time – those who have been there for her as she has grown both personally and professionally over the years and who will be missed as much as any other loved one. She felt traitorous; like she was leaving a sinking ship and her friends were still on board.

Adding to this stress, we both have parents who are retiring within months of each other – the first coming on the same day my wife finished work for her previous employer. Both families have some resources, but after all the recent losses of retirement savings, no one is feeling certain that they will have the means to be self sufficient as long as they thought they would.

Needless to say, my focus had shifted inward towards my own family and away from the world at large. My wife and I had many difficult discussions, some emotional moments, and a few frustrating times over the past weeks, but we have begun to come around. I believe a corner has been turned in our small world – my wife has begun her new job and feels better about her decision. She is encouraged so far by the people she has met and again feels fortunate to have a job she likes in our small city. For the moment, our changes seem smaller and easier to accept than many people's. We still have jobs; we still have our health; we still have our home. We continue to be fortunate. We have adapted for the moment and continue to avoid major disaster.

As I turned my attention back to the larger world yesterday, I noted that not much has changed: the bear market rally has continued, the economic commentators are calling a bottom (still) and people want to believe that the worst is close to ending. But the jobs numbers still seem shocking, the cost of oil is increasing, Goldman Sachs is looking at raising capital, and the Toll brothers (owners of one of the largest home manufacturers in the country) are selling their own company's stock. Yeah. That's better. Nothing new here. I have not missed much. The rest of the world is still falling apart.

But my own small family has reluctantly (and hopefully successfully) moved on to Plan B.