Music & clubs

Saved by the Germans: Emperor X

American musician Chad Matheny, aka Emperor X, on surviving testicular cancer, owing the hospital €30,000 and being (mostly) happy about it.

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Kate Seabrook

American musician Chad Matheny moved to Berlin with his project Emperor X in 2013. His most recent album, Oversleepers International, features the single “€30,000”: the real-life sum he owed Berlin’s Vivantes hospital for treating his testicular cancer in 2015. He told us the full story in our March issue on health. Listen to the song here, and catch Emperor X’s first Berlin show post-album release at IPA Bar on July 7.

“About 13 months after I moved here, I let my health insurance lapse. It was private Luxembourgian travel insurance, the kind they don’t even accept for freelance visas anymore because it’s garbage – it barely covered anything. I thought, eh, I don’t feel like paying it this month, I’ll start it back up again before my next Ausländerbehörde appointment, make up some story. I was 36, a healthy younger-middle-aged person… I didn’t take it seriously. And then, four or five months later, I started feeling weird abdominal pains. I went to the hospital and when I woke up the next morning I was told in very matter-of-fact German: “Good morning, Mr. Matheny. We have tested your blood and you have cancer. We’ll be removing your testicle tomorrow.”

They found out that what I had was super-advanced: stage 3B, like one below dead. With most testicular cancer, if you catch it early enough, the survival rate’s close to 100 percent; in my case it was closer to 70 percent. Still better than most cancers, but scary. I had the option of going back to the States, but I didn’t have insurance there either. It would’ve taken me at least a week to find a hospital and get registered there, and it was the kind of cancer where even waiting a week would’ve significantly lowered my prognosis. So, I stayed. They transferred me to Vivantes Klinikum am Urban, where I ended up having three months of chemo and one invasive surgery at the end, because it had spread and they ended up having to take out some lymph nodes from way inside my gut.

When you get this kind of scary diagnosis you see, in a deep, fundamental way, how your society treats strangers. The staff at Urban knew I spoke very little German, and they were extraordinarily compassionate. They couldn’t provide emotional support, really, but every nurse was coming in and speaking very slowly: “Herr Matheny, ist alles okay? Should we call your embassy?” This made me feel like I got sick in the right place. My parents weren’t thrilled about my choice to stay here, but when they came over and saw how I was being treated, they were very pleased.

Of course, whenever I went in they’d tell me to sign a form saying that I’d eventually have to pay for everything they did, but it never felt like a threat. The head of the administrative division for urology always told me that I’d be treated first and we’d worry about the details later, that they’d try to make it easy for me. And they did. At the end of the day, all I had to pay was €30,000, in instalments of €350 a month. When I tell that to anyone from the States, they always say, “Wow, that’s so cheap!” I was in the hospital overnight for a solid month, when you add all the dates together. In America, a single night’s gonna set you back $500, if not way more. I priced it out – at minimum, it would have been $100,000 out of pocket. Probably closer to a quarter million.

After I recovered I went on tour in the US, and in Pennsylvania I found a little bump on my neck – which ended up just being a zit or something, but when you’re a cancer survivor everything freaks you out, so I went to the emergency room. They looked at it, said “I don’t know what that is” and charged me $50, which I gladly paid. Fast forward three months and I get another bill for $360. For a routine visit! When all this was over I was able to get on the [public artists’ health insurance system] KSK as a freelance musician, which I should’ve done from the beginning. So now I’m covered for my follow-up appointments, which I have to get every three months for the first two years, and if anything ever comes back, God forbid. On top of the €350 a month going out, that’s a €500/month “not dead” tax, but I dunno, it’s a good deal. I’m never going to complain about having to pay this money. The system might be flawed, but compared to if I was in California or something? God bless Deutschland!”

Catch Emperor X with Christian Holden, Olivia W.B. and Burkini Beach on Fri, Jul 7, 23:00 at IPA Bar, Karl-Marx-Str. 195, Neukölln.