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.)
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