This issue of the Reporter contains several stories related to local health care, so it seems appropriate to throw in my two-cents-worth about so-called health care reforms. Unfortunately, they have come too late to help my family.
I’ve become all too familiar with the U.S. health care system in the last couple of years. Or my parents have, to be more accurate.
They live in Corpus Christi and are both in their 80s. My mother, who has congestive heart-failure and a laundry list of other ailments, has been in and out of the hospital every year for as long as I can remember. My father, her full-time caretaker at 86, underwent triple-bypass surgery in 2008, a six-week recovery process and surgery to remove three abdominal aortic aneurysms last year. His doctors later told him they were surprised he lived through it all, but somehow he did.
Recently he was diagnosed with a blockage in his carotid artery in his neck, but he doesn’t want to have any more surgeries. I can’t blame him, but it’s hard to think of him with a ticking time-bomb in his neck.
They’ve both through the ringer and so have I and my sister and brother, watching our parents’ long, slow decline. And we aren’t alone or even unusual. Almost everyone I know who’s my age and has parents still living is dealing with the dilemma of how to care for them, often from afar, in a medical system that at times seems cold, unfeeling and at times incompetent.
I wish my parents could receive the level of care I see in Glen Rose at the medical center, the rehab centers — Clark Cole’s and the medical center’s — and at the nursing homes. Somehow in this small town, some excellent doctors and facilities have landed with some of the most caring health care professionals I’ve ever met.
But in larger cities sometimes, the system seems to attract people to the profession who often come across as overworked, underpaid and jaded. To be sure, my parents both have had some good medical care, but I’ve often found I had to be an advocate for them when they weren’t able to look out for themselves. I witnessed some troubling lack of quality and basic human empathy.
For example, when my father suffered complications from his heart surgery and had to stay in the hospital much longer than anyone expected, his Medicare benefits ran out. He either had to leave the hospital or go to a nursing home. My sister and I considered the idea of taking him to one of our homes, but he was much too weak. We physically could not handle a 6-foot-3-inch tall man. He is active and mentally acute with a mind that can easily digest a long biography of Winston Churchill and the three-volume Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. To see him in a nursing home was almost too much to bear. The doctors called it rehab and said he simply needed to get stronger.
We did some investigating and found a nursing home in Corpus Christi near my brother’s house. It was attractive and high-rated. I still hated it and hoped my father would regain his strength soon.
But as soon as he was admitted, he worsened. He couldn’t keep anything down. I told the nurses I was concerned. My concerns were noted, but not passed on to the nurse on the next shift. Two days went by and nothing had been done to get my father to see a doctor. One night, after he’d thrown up again, he looked at me and said, “They’re killing me. Don’t let me die in here.”
I was afraid my father would aspirate. I tried to raise his bed higher but couldn’t. I pushed the button for a nurse but no one came. I poked my head into the hall and looked toward the nurses’ station. Two people were sitting there doing paperwork.
When I insisted they send someone to my father’s room immediately, one of them looked up at me unconcernedly. “They’re all in the dining hall helping patients eat,” she said and went back to her paperwork.
I’d had enough and called the head administrator, mentioned I was a reporter and lo and behold, a bevy of nurses came to my father’s room. The head nurse took his pulse and said, “Call an ambulance.”
Once my father got to the ER, doctors performed a scan and found that fluid had collected around his heart. Another day in the nursing home untreated and he could have died.
My father later said I saved his life. I wondered what happened to the other people in that facility who didn’t have an advocate.
After that ordeal, I was determined to keep a better handle on my parents’ medical events. But the entire system seemed out of control.
My mother’s health problems have kept her on a steady diet of medications, so much so that she fell into the so-called Medicare “donut hole” when she ran out of her allotted expenses every year around October and my parents had to foot the medication bills themselves until the next round of Medicare prescription coverage kicked in. My father, unbeknownst to us, was charging prescription drugs on his credit cards because he couldn’t pay for them on his limited income. Then he couldn’t pay his credit card bills. Eventually, he filed for bankruptcy — a blow to his self-esteem that was as damaging to his health as his heart trouble.
Late last year, Congress finally moved to close up the “donut hole.” Tell that to my parents who have no savings left.
That my father, a veteran of World War II, should endure such humiliation (in his eyes, at least) is a travesty. He went to the local V.A. hospital a few times to try to get prescription benefits that way, but he gave up after waiting for hours. The United States needs to treat its veterans like kings instead of making them feel like paupers. It’s pathetic and disgusting.
My siblings and I have helped our parents financially when we could. It’s truly heartbreaking to feel so helpless in the midst of a massive healthcare system that seems to gobble up money and not always provide the best care. Moreover, it penalizes small hospitals, such as the one here in Glen Rose, for not being a large provider. In health care, size does matter.
My mother has just gotten out of the hospital again. My father says he’s waiting for the other shoe to drop. I pray neither one will end up in a nursing home again, but that’s likely wishful thinking. And so I wait…and wonder why I — the child turned into the parent — can’t protect them.