When the cell phone hanging on my hip rang, I was trying to hang some expensive silk drapes in my living room. I was slightly annoyed. This was the third time my phone had rung and I was not even on call. I should have just paid the dang $120 to have them do the hanging for me. But noooo… I thought I could do it myself.
When I heard the sobs on the other end of the line, I left everything where it was, in the floor, and drove downtown to the big hospital.
I stood discretely outside the door, watching the heartbeat and respirations marked out on the monitor. Bleep. Bleep. Bleep. Sometimes it was ding, ding, ding. Doctors and nurses came and went.
Her mother and father took turns holding her as the rest of the grieving family gathered.
Soon, the machines and medicines would be turned off.
This tiny, sweet baby was born with a heart condition that while serious would have been treatable… had we known about it.
She had been born in our tiny local hospital and had coded twice before the pediatrician on call managed to get her transferred. By then her kidneys and her heart were failing and there was brain damage.
Her mother was a staff member at the office that I shared with twelve other physicians, part of a larger group of hundreds of doctors and thousands of support staff.
Surrounded by all of this healthcare how had something like this been missed?
Changes in corporate’s insurance plan that year had made everyone more responsible for their healthcare costs. As a result there was a four thousand dollar gap in coverage that mom was responsible for 100% before insurance benefits actually kicked in. The insurance benefit changes were a surprise. So was the pregnancy.
As a result she had stopped going to her OB appointments and had skipped the ultrasound that would have caught the heart condition. They just did not have $4,000 lying around. So they gambled and did not tell anyone. When her contractions started she went to the local hospital, expecting a normal delivery.
What are the odds, anyway?
The baby languished in the pediatric hospital’s ICU for weeks that turned into months. Finally it was decided that she was not going to get better. She was not a candidate for a heart or kidney transplant due to the brain damage, so now the decision was to withdraw support.
The phone call I received while I was hanging drapery was to let me know.
I was never actually involved in her care except to say that another physician from the group and I stood vigil outside that little girl’s room that night until her suffering was over, hoping that it granted some shred of peace to her family. A show of solidarity.
After the machines and drips were removed, the process of dying, which was supposed to have been immediate, dragged on and on for hours. The sobs got louder.
I snuck in and stood by mom long enough to touch her on the shoulder and say softly, “Go ahead and tell her it is OK to leave. You’ve been telling her this whole time to fight and just hang on. Tell her it is ok for her to leave.”
She bent over the tiny ear and whispered the goodbye. In minutes it was over.
So, when my brother, or some other foolish person rattles off crap about how healthcare is a privilege that should be paid for like a Mercedes, I can barely hold back my rage.
These are real people facing real choices and real suffering and YOU don’t have to look them in the face every day and say, “Suck it, now have a nice day!”
Now, when I look at those drapes hanging in my living room I do not think about how good they look in my house. I think about how their cost would have bridged the gap for a life.