SYNDICATED COLUMN: Ebola Is Here in America. Why Aren’t We Angry?

It was clear from the tone of the coverage of Ebola’s arrival in the United States that media gatekeepers expected people to be surprised by a Dallas hospital’s decision to turn away U.S. Ebola Patient Zero from the emergency room. It was, by any standard, a colossal screw-up, one that might easily have been avoided. The man was Liberian. He’d informed ER staff that he’d recently traveled to Liberia, the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. His symptoms — he vomited en route to the hospital — were consistent with Ebola. Despite having all the information they needed to make a proper diagnosis and having received alerts from the Centers for Disease Control to be on alert for people arriving from West Africa with flu-like symptoms, the hospital turned him loose, where he is believed to have directly exposed at least 100 people to the deadly virus.

It’s an outrageous lapse, yet Americans weren’t outraged. Why would we be? Anyone who deals with the U.S. healthcare system has experienced its systematic incompetence.

In New York City, where I’ve lived most of my life, conventional wisdom is that a visit to the ER will make whatever is ailing you worse rather than better — unless you’ve been shot. Severe vomiting? Head pressure that makes you feel like your head is going to explode? Sky-high fever? Blunt head trauma caused by a car accident? Odds are, you’ll sit on hard plastic seats in a stuffy waiting room for hour after hour, feeling nastier and nastier. The one time I got proper treatment at the ER was when the root of a mole on my chest separated from the artery into which had grown, causing it to burst into a glorious, gory explosion à la “Saw.”

“Gunshot wound!” an intern shouted when my friends carried me in.

Instant attention. Multiple doctors.

Obviously it worked out ­— here I still am, writing and complaining.

If you live in New York, and you’re really really sick but not visibly bleeding, you might want to shoot yourself. Hey, doc, while you’re dressing that bullet in my thigh, can you look at the dent in my skull?

The Dallas Ebola incident reminded me of an evening I spent with my friend Cole Smithey, the film critic.

“My finger is bothering me,” Cole whispered to me during a screening. After the lights came up, he showed me an index finger that had expanded to nearly double its normal width. We drew the same conclusion: an insect bite, most likely a spider. Swelling tends to be greater on extremities.

As the night wore on, however, the swelling got worse and more painful. We searched in vain for the telltale double marks of a spider bite.

Cole is a stoic guy but his agony was obvious. Around 11 pm we appeared at the emergency room of Lenox Hill Hospital on the Upper East Side of Manhattan — a stone’s throw from New York Hospital where, New Yorkers remember, Andy Warhol died of medical neglect.

We waited. The pain got worse. When we consulted the triage nurse, she took a quick look at Cole’s hand, which by then was swollen nearly down to his wrist, and told us to leave. “Go the pharmacy and get some Benadryl,” she ordered.
We followed her advice. Cole took the Benadryl and went home.

And nearly died.

Turned out he had an aggressive form of flesh-eating bacteria. Unable to sleep, he took a cab at 5 am to a private 24-hour clinic where doctors immediately recognized the symptoms and began pumping heavy-duty antibiotics via an IV.

It was touch and go for a few hours.

“Good thing you came when you did,” a doctor told him. “If you’d waited a couple more hours, you’d be dead.”

Like the Ebola failure in Texas, my friend’s near-death experience due to an idiot in the ER is an outrage — and common occurrence. Every American can tell a similar story. It’s been this way for as long as we can remember; it just keeps getting worse.

As the Ebola scare demonstrates, a nation that shortchanges its healthcare infrastructure is due for an awful reckoning. But good healthcare is incompatible with corporate capitalism. As long as medicine is a business rather than a privilege guaranteed by the government to every citizen at no cost, hospitals will be short-staffed, too small for their communities, riddled with workers who are overworked, demoralized and/or inept.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)


19 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Ebola Is Here in America. Why Aren’t We Angry?

  1. Ted,
    In your anecdote, the hospital ER [more socialized healthcare] got things wrong, and a private clinic [less socialized healthcare] gets it right. Your suggestion is more socialized healthcare? And at ‘no cost’?
    The answer is not more bureaucracy, it is, as you experienced, less.
    Please don’t advocate for more ‘free’ healthcare in America, (or anywhere) Ted. Advocate for better healthcare.

    Thanks, a healthcare worker,

  2. “Every American can tell a similar story.”

    Yah man, I have some great ones, including ones where they made things so much worse then if I hadn’t gone. But precisely because we all have similar stories there is no reason to relate them, though my personal “favorite” is still a bit interesting if only for the pure condescension of the doctor I had to deal with. While this was never explicitly said as directly as this the attitude basically boiled down to: “your wasting my time by dying of something a little out of my comfort zone and not particularly interesting to me nor all that profitable to treat. Could you go leave and die somewhere else already so I can find like a gunshot wound victim or something at least a little closer to a thing you might see on a medical drama that I could tell my friends about as an interesting story and also that I charge a lot more to deal with?”

  3. Indeed, good healthcare appears so incompatible with capitalism that you might be inclined to think the “job creators” have finally figured a way to make their profits without the intervention of “low level” humans.

  4. I wonder which employee — exactly — turned the patient away. My suspicion is that it was not a doctor. Probably one of those GED-wielding, got-my-certificate-at-the-school-that-has-the-ads-on-the-subway holding fauxnurses that are cheap to hire.

    You think ebola’s something to worry about? Don’t think about antibiotic-resistant TB then. Cases of that are starting to emerge, too. And don’t stop there, either. Half of the antibiotics used annually are put into livestock because of the conditions they’re being raised in. You think the superbugs are just going to go away? Avian flu, mad cow, all the rest? They didn’t just pop up like magic. They arrived because of human cost-effective practices so disgusting (and inhumane) that the only films we have of them are the ones PETA and the rest secretly obtain.

    The Spanish Flu during WWI? Almost certainly emerged because of unsanitary conditions in the trenches coupled to close contact with many people. Also, you had the conflict itself as one of the largest reorganizations of population in history. Millions of men from all over Europe and America coming together, being exposed, and then returning home to spread their new exciting illnesses. The railroad helped spread contagion. Planes will do an even more effective job. If I live through it all, I might finally be able to afford my own condo in New York.

    • Yep, you crowd too many animals too close together and disease spreads like mad. Humans are the only animals known who voluntarily do that to themselves.

      A mutated bug has a greater chance surviving in those conditions as well; if the animals were better separated there’s higher probability that he’d die before finding a new host.

    • *Avian flu, mad cow, all the rest? They didn’t just pop up like magic.*
      Personally, I believe that the military is behind many of the exotic diseases that seemingly appear out of nowhere. It’s germ warfare at its finest and the guinea pigs are the populace at large. Smallpox infested blankets for the Indians?

      • I’ll disagree with you on that. But only on a detail, rather than the crux. Your main point (I assume) is to point out that there are people who will develop the sorts of things that serve no purpose other than to kill in horrible, undignified and agonizing ways. Whether that means smallpox blankets to the Indians or napalm onto Cambodian and Vietnamese children, for the victims it’s the same thing: pain and suffering.

        But mad cow and avian flu? Those belong solely on the heads of the people who run the modern-day farming industry. Only when you cram these animals together (which is essential in order to maximize profit) do you get these sorts of diseases emerging.

        But if there is a judgment at the end, the scientists who kidded themselves that superweapons would help end the war (whichever particular war it was when they came along) are going to have a lot of things to answer for at the throne of the almighty.

      • @ alex_the_tired –

        Note the word “Personally”; I’m not asking anyone to buy into my personal theory.

        However, I might point out that healthy animals crowded together cannot automatically produce mad cow disease or avian flu. There has to be a point of inception.

      • “However, I might point out that healthy animals crowded together cannot automatically produce mad cow disease or avian flu. There has to be a point of inception.”

        Actually … what can happen is that two relatively benign germs (one from animal A and one from animal B) can exchange genetic material (transference) leading to a third germ that is far from benign. The sanitary conditions are a big, big part of this.

        As for your theory, oh, I don’t think you’re completely wrong. Far from it. Although I think agribusiness is to blame for generating most of these things solely from a motivation point of “let’s make every penny we can, who cares if animals suffer or if people die” I can readily agree with you that the government is involved.

        Who knows, somewhere in Oklahoma or West Virginia or some other state without a lot going on, there’s probably shelf after shelf after shelf of purified viruses and bacteria that have emerged from animals kept in filthy conditions. And I have no doubt that some pretty well-paid government scientists spend each day hybridizing those pathogens into even more powerful forms. Why/ Well, freedom isn’t free. It’s not like we’d ever use them. …

  5. All the people who matter don’t take public transportation or allow the rabble into their private offices, so Ebola is not a threat to them, and there is no way to justify spending money on contagious diseases to which they’ll never be exposed. We must keep all our medical research dollars focused on diseases from which EITHER there is a reasonable expectation that they might suffer OR from which they can earn a modest (say, 1000% or more) profit.

    Since Ebola is NOT a threat to the decent people who run things, it is only worth fighting if we get a decent epidemic that will put at least a $billion into the pockets of those decent people. So it’s clear that first Dallas hospital emergency room did exactly the right thing!

  6. Does anyone here really believe that government employees are less incompetent than corporate ones? What exactly in government is working great right now? They can’t even do the things right they spend most of their resources on such as precision bombing and NSA domestic spying. No matter how much some sector is socialized, socialists always say they just haven’t had a chance to get it to work. They just don’t quite have it right yet. More reform, more government intervention, more socialism must be the answer! I know no one here likes corporations getting government favors; well, you make economic intervention illegal and goodbye corruption as there’d be no favors possible!

  7. I find the response eerie, nonchalant and a little creepy at the number of expose’s on how it won’t be a dangerous epidemic. I also saw one reference that compared the initial reaction to Ebola in America to how AIDS was first handled.

    Sorry that I’ve been gone so long. Did anyone miss me? It’s the consequence of having a job and two kids under 5. I hadn’t even realized that I’d stopped coming here until my wife checked out ‘After we kill you….’ from the library.

    • They do keep talking about seceding – maybe we should let ’em have a vote. And if that doesn’t get rid of ’em, the other 49 states should vote on the issue.

      • I reject the way secession is framed in American politics…we shouldn’t be talking about secession from the point of view of states wanting to secede, but rather what states the rest of us want to evict.

        Mississippi and Alabama, for example, are net financial burdens on the union, in large part because of their failed, extremist economic policies. We need to evict them. Texas is a political liability. While reasonable on economic grounds, they have delivered us one political nightmare after another, and should be evicted.

  8. Just to add my stories. Lived in NYC till my early 40s. When I was in grad school, I was washing my good 10″ chef’s knifed and sliced my thumb good, blood all over the place. My wife and I wrapped it in gauze, lots of gauze, and discussed going to the ER (we had insurance since she was a teacher). Decided not to, since why sit there for hours. On the other hand ripped my elbow up when I lived in Williamsburg while building my son’s room in our loft. Went to Woodhull, which is in Bushwick, which back then was a terrible neighborhood. In and out in 3 hours, 17 stitches, done by an actual doctor. I must have been the only white guy with insurance they had seen in the whole decade of the 90s. My brother had the flesh eating bacteria thing, woke up middle of the night with his leg twice it’s usual size. Thing is, he’s an MD, knew what it was. Went to the ER, and since he’s an MD they actually treated him.

  9. More fuel for the socialized medicine fire.

    The epitome of capitalized medicine has got to be Group Health “cooperative” – the insurance company and the hospital are owned by the same corporation. It’s hell trying to get a doctor to prescribe any actual medicine (that the insurance would have to pay for) or order any tests (ditto) it’s all about the bottom line.

    I can’t help but think that’s what the entire world would look like if the “Libertarians” got their way. “You have reached 911. Your call is important to us, please hold and your call will be answered in order of net personal worth…”

    “… I’m sorry about your house, Mr. Tired, but our fire truck had to be diverted because a rich man’s cat got caught in a tree.”

    “Welcome to the Gigantocorp Hospital Emergency Room. What seems to be the problem?”
    “I got mugged! I’m shot in the gut! I’m bleeding out!”
    “Emergency room services are ten thousand dollars an hour, two hours paid in advance”
    “I don’t have any money! I got mugged!
    “The waiting room is for paying customers only, if you bleed on the floor on your way out you will be billed for clean up. Next customer please…”