Over the last couple of days I've received a torrent of emails all pointing me to the same news article. As I've mentioned in the past, I receive a substantial volume of correspondence. Some people describe in agonizing detail terrible medical atrocities, others refer me to an urgent healthcare related news story.
I suppose writing these healthcare diaires has taken a toll on me and my psyche because I saw the same story before anyone alerted me to its existence, and I shrugged.
It's about a doctor and his patient, and it's illustrative of how the collapse of our healthcare system is responsible for inflicting death, hardship and misery on millions of Americans.
It's also about life and death in America in 2007, the richest country on the planet. A country in the thrall of a murderous for-profit insurance industry. A country where affordable healthcare remains an unheard of luxury for 48 million of our fellow citizens.
Doc Survived, Uninsured Patient Didn't
Dr. Perry Klaassen lived to tell about his frightening ordeal with colon cancer. His patient did not. Same age, same state, same disease. Striking similarities, Klaassen thought when Shirley Searcy came to his clinic in Oklahoma City. It was July 2002, a year after his own diagnosis. But there was one huge difference: Klaassen had health insurance, Searcy did not.
Yes, I shrugged. And I'm not proud that I casually dismissed this terrible story. But I did. I think my reaction to such a grotesque tale of who lives and who dies, may be a small window into the psyche of the American people. Why do we permit this lethal system to slither on and on wreaking havoc and destroying families?
Perhaps we feel powerless to effectuate change. Maybe we feel our fate is fully sealed, controlled and manipulated by our for-profit health care system. Maybe as Americans we are simply overloaded with despair and bad news. Perhaps we have been systematically robbed of the ability to dream about better days and a just nation.
The story is about a doctor diagnosed with colon cancer. The doctor had health insurance and received good treatment. He had an uninsured patient who was also diagnosed with colon cancer. His patient died soon after the diagnosis.
His treatment included surgery two days after diagnosis and costly new drugs. They have kept him alive six years later despite disease that has now spread to his lungs, liver and pelvis.
''I received the most efficient care possible. I was 61 years old and had good group health insurance through my workplace,'' he wrote in an essay in a medical journal essay that starkly contrasts his care with that of his uninsured patient.
The doctor didn't name Shirley Searcy in his March 14 article. After all he'd been through, he couldn't remember her name. But for days he dug through old medical files searching for her identity after he was interviewed by The Associated Press. He realized he could shine a more powerful light on the plight of the uninsured and an inequitable health care system if her story could be told more fully.
Frankly, I didn't see anything particularly newsworthy about this tragedy, this is status quo in America. Shame on me! I'm almost numb to our grotesque American reality. When I read stories like this, I think in George Bush's America, this is how we play the game.
What follows probably describes my own reaction. Indeed, it is a story that is far from unique. I would say it's sadly very commonplace.
And it is a story that's far from unique. The widowed mother of eight grown children, Searcy had little money. When she began to sense she might be sick, she put off going to the doctor for a year because she knew she couldn't pay the medical bills. Deeply religious, she put her faith in God, according to her family.
By the time she saw Klaassen, her cancer had spread from her colon to her liver. She had surgery but rejected chemotherapy.
''She just really didn't feel like she wanted to endure what that would cost physically or financially,'' said her daughter-in-law, Karen Searcy.
Shirley Searcy died Dec. 22, 2003, about 18 months after her diagnosis.
Maybe we/I despair because I read stories like these day in and day out. We watch snake-oil salesmen politicians offer non-solutions. We have a healthcare system that tolerates financial ruin for millions of Americans. We are citizens of a country that permits these sorts of human rights violations to go unaddressed and unpunished.
Even insured family on brink of ruin
On a recent afternoon, Nathan Contreras zipped around the living room of his family's Southeast Side home with the energy and exuberance of a typical 2-year-old boy.
It was only the port in his stomach for a feeding tube, revealed when Mom lifted his T-shirt, that indicated all was not well.
. . .Nathan suffers from a rare and severe form of cystic fibrosis, a progressive, genetic disease that requires a lifetime of specialized medical care. He has been hospitalized 13 times since birth and gets 99 percent of his calories and nutrients through the gastrostomy tube.
Two years ago, I interviewed Nathan's parents, Patrick and Lesli Contreras, about the challenges they faced after learning their infant had an incurable illness. Early on, the medical bills were piling up. Today, the couple struggle to avoid financial ruin.
. . .The couple are reluctant to sell their house - a modest abode, modestly furnished - and move to a cheaper place because their credit is so wrecked they fear they'd never again qualify for a home loan.
They rarely buy new clothes for themselves and sometimes have to put off buying Nathan's medications.
Because Pat Contreras, a jeweler, makes $53,000 a year, the family doesn't qualify for government health programs or assistance.
"We couldn't get anything," Lesli Contreras said.
Local churches and The Salvation Army have assisted them with bills on several occasions.
The Contrerases have health insurance. But they pay 20 percent of each medical bill and about $4,000 each year in deductibles.
In a good month, one in which Nathan doesn't have any unexpected visits to the doctor or the hospital, the Contrerases shell out $600 in co-pays for his vitamins, medications and formula. The day I visited, Nathan was, as his mother put it, "full of beans," but the crashes come suddenly.
The 2005 Harvard study, looking at filings from 2001, attributed about 700,000 bankruptcies (out of 1.4 million ) to illness in the family.
More than three-quarters of the households had insurance at the start of the bankrupting illness, though many lost it by the time they filed for bankruptcy.
"Unless you're Bill Gates, you are just one serious illness away from bankruptcy," Dr. David Himmelstein, lead author, said in a news release at the time.
Health insurance offered little protection. Families faced "unaffordable co-payments, deductibles and bills for uncovered items," he said.
. . ."I make myself numb to it because I can't do anything about it," Pat Contreras said. "I try to pay the most important bills, to keep the house and pay the utilities."
Anyone happen to see 60 Minutes this past Sunday? It was a particularly chilling rehash of the passage of the Medicare Modernization Act which resulted in the rape of America's elderly and the disasterous Medicare D giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry.
Here's what Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. said, "I've been in politics for 22 years, and it was the ugliest night I have ever seen in 22 years."
You can read a transcript here. Warning bring a vomit bag.