Requiem for Ink
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Requiem for Ink

A Day at the Emergency Room.

Photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash.

Monday morning at work and everyone wants to ask, “How was your weekend?”

I had been expecting to attend the funeral of a relative over the weekend. But instead spent the day at a hospital emergency room.

Some Monday mornings you can’t be everyone’s bright ray of conversational sunshine.

Other than the busy medical staff, there are two kinds of people in an emergency room. The ones lying on hospital beds waiting to get their various ailments and injuries sorted out.

And the person sitting on a hard folding chair at the foot of each bed. The driver who brought the patient in, and now has the job of trying to hear every detail of what the doctors and nurses say as they bustle in and out of the bay. Maybe even scribbling down a few notes. Mostly, waiting to see what happens next. This was me on a recent rainy weekend.

My 88-year-old mother had developed an infection in her right elbow. The next morning she called and said the redness and swelling had traveled the whole length of her arm. So into the emergency room we went.

An infection that sets off on a determined march toward other parts of the body is one of those things they take seriously in an emergency room. We were ushered straight through the big double doors without the customary hour spent catching up on back issues of People Magazine in the lobby.

In the hospital emergency room you are on the front lines of the healthcare system. The ancient battle against disease and aging is one humanity will never completely win, but in the emergency room we soldier valiantly on. Today’s medical professionals bring an impressive armada of technology to the fight and none of it looks cheap.

Everyone who steps into our bay scans the barcode on my mother’s wristband. Beep, a visit from the physician’s assistant to poke at the swollen arm and ask some questions. Beep, six tubes of blood drawn and sent to the lab for tests. Beep, a visit from the orthopedic surgeon because there are screws in the infected elbow from an old fracture. He says the hardware might complicate things.

I’m reminded of the way my hotel room key card was scanned every time I got a cup of coffee or ice cream cone on my last visit to Disney World. It’s easy to understand why it all costs so much.

The big fight in the U.S. Congress over repealing Obamacare was supposed to be all about bringing some free market discipline to medicine. Obamacare or no Obamacare, I couldn’t imagine the two of us, my mother in her technology laden hospital bed and me sitting on my hard folding chair, acting like careful shoppers during our day spent in the emergency room.

I know how to tell if a tomato is ripe at the grocery store. I do not know how to tell if six tubes of blood sent down to the lab for testing is too many, or maybe three might do the trick. Normally I’m handy with Do It Yourself projects and that can save money on things like fixing a leaky pipe or a crack in the ceiling. But when the tall nurse with the gentle touch and red bow in her hair stepped into the room to insert the needle for the IV, my DIY inclinations were nowhere to be found.

The whole congressional exercise to reform healthcare failed so miserably because it had nothing to do with the way medicine really works. It was all done behind locked doors in the basement of the Senate. They never once listened to a doctor or a nurse or someone who’s spent the day sitting in an emergency room worrying about the health of a loved one.

The congressional leaders trying to put together votes for their plan might as well have been circus clowns running around an old Studebaker for all they contributed to actual healthcare policy. Maybe it was all just meant to be entertainment for the viewers of Fox News.

Now there is talk of having another go at the legislative project, not just from the White House or congressional leadership, but from actual serious people who hope to accomplish something of value. I’d suggest they start here, in the emergency room. Spend a few hours sitting on a hard folding chair. Learn about the human behavior of people who are sick, and the medical professionals working to heal them. That’d be something to craft a shiny new healthcare law around.

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Reflections on business, government & wisdom.

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Sheldon Clay

Sheldon Clay

Writer. Observer of mass culture, communications and creativity.

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