Sunday, February 01, 2004

Five Hours and Five Stitches Later

“Don’t worry, everything is okay. Cathy cut her hand and I had to take her to the emergency room.”

So began the phone conversation I had yesterday afternoon with my landlord’s wife. I was attending a meeting (my last one) with the youth development organization I had been interning with for the past several months when one of the students approached me and whispered, “You’re neighbor is on the phone and says it’s an emergency.”

Here’s immediately what went through my mind: “Emergency? Christ! What happened to Cathy? Boxes? Did some boxes fall on her?” (We’re in the throes of moving and the boxes are piled mighty high throughout our place. Some could have fallen on her. They could have done some damage.)

In retrospect, I find it odd that the best I could do when confronted with this most dreadful of contexts (“…says it’s an emergency!”) was to envision Cathy trapped under an avalanche of component boxes. It could have been any number of calamities! Clearly, the move was on my mind. And sheesh, if you could see the state our place is in right now!

Anyway, turns out Cathy had accidentally stabbed herself while attempting to clean out an old candle-holder. Don’t ask. It was a hopelessly unavoidable accident (even if hindsight nagged her all day) but it left a nasty gouge in the palm of her left hand. Our landlord’s wife was upstairs and was kind enough to drive Cathy to the Alta Bates emergency room here in Berkeley. I arrived about 45 minutes later and found Cathy in the waiting room. Cedric the Entertainer was on the TV hanging from the corner of the room. The TV was up way too loud.

This is the second time in the past few years that Cathy and I have spent time in an emergency room. (The other time being when I nearly broke my arm a few days before our wedding in July of 2001.) Both times we spent roughly 5 hours from check in to check out. We also caught a sobering glimpse of the deplorable state of our countries healthcare system, namely the fact that those without insurance (43 million and counting) oftentimes have no other choice but to take advantage of emergency room treatment services. These are the folks for whom access to the high quality health care we have available in this country is not a given.

Most of the people joining us in the waiting room were sick (by no means calamitously so) and waiting to see an emergency room physician in order to receive some basic care, the kind most of us would get by making an appointment with our physician. We overheard a few folks discussing when the best time to use the emergency room would be, with the winner being kickoff time on Super Bowl Sunday. Who would ever be in an emergency room at kick off time on the Super Bowl? Maybe, they thought, it would be better to come back then? A mildly schizophrenic woman spent over an hour begging us all for quarters, pens and paper as she spoke to various people on the pay phone about getting her heart fixed. She had been there since early morning. (Later, after we had moved to an examining room, we heard her screaming that somebody was touching her.)

One of the only magazines in the waiting room was a copy of O Magazine, Oprah’s monthly syllabus for her minions. It included an article about Oprah retiring to her Indiana farmhouse with some of her gal pals for a silent weekend retreat. For 2 1/2 days she and her buddies would do yoga, meditate and enjoy chef Art’s turkey burgers and sweet potato pies without uttering a word! Oprah writes, “I first extend lovingkindness to myself, then to my family and friends. I’ve done the lovingkindness exercise many times before on my own, but it’s still a reminder for me to open my heart.”

Such flapdoodle aside, what really got me (beyond the fact that Oprah extends lovingkindness to herself first) was the awful disparity of the article, with all its sense of privilege and oozing warm glow, and the reality of the emergency room waiting area, where some of the same people who were there when we arrived, were still waiting when we left over 5 hours later.

Why can’t we come up with a practical, workable model in this country that ensures that everybody is properly insured and has access to equitable healthcare? I know there’s no simple answer to this one, but I also know that we can do far better.

Here is a summary provided by The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation of each of the candidates’ proposals for expanding health insurance coverage.

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