Life is not fair.
That point hit home once again this week.
On Thanksgiving morning, a friend of mine became seriously ill. She recently had moved in to our guest room — needing a place to stay and wanting to help me organize my home with 25-plus years of clutter.
So Thanksgiving morning, she tells me she is having agonizing pains in her stomach and that she needs to go to the hospital.
We get in my car, and she tells me she needs to go to Grady because she has no health insurance. This does not come as a surprise. I have known she has been living on the margins of society for years.
As we’re driving downtown, I began to regret that we had not called an ambulance. She was suffering tremendously, and I knew that every bump on the road was causing her excruciating pain. Plus, we literally didn’t know if she was in a life-or-death situation.
As soon as we pulled up to Grady’s emergency room, I felt a complete sense of relief. I knew there was no better place for her to be. They immediately took her back to the emergency room where doctors tried to determine the source of her pain.
Was it her appendix? Kidney stones? Her gallbladder? She was doubled-over in agony, and they had problems examining her until they had given her some pain medicine to calm her down.
At no point in her treatment did I feel she was being denied the best care she could get because she was not fortunate enough to have a stable life with health insurance.
The medical staff at Grady could not have been more attentive. After a couple hours, I had to leave so my children and I could go to a Thanksgiving dinner at the home of friends who have become family.
But throughout the day, I called the emergency room to check in on my friend. I was able to talk to both the nurses and doctors, who kept me informed on her condition and their diagnosis.
X-rays and scans determined she had an abscess on her bowel. Surgeons came in and reviewed her case and determined to operate that night. Again, my trust in Grady Hospital expert medical staff gave me comfort.
For the past several days, I’ve spent long hours at Grady, witnessing first-hand what an amazing place it is. Doctors, nurses and medical technicians of every race, ethnicity and nationality are there with one mission — to take care of the sick and infirm — whether they have money or insurance or not.
My friend has been in the ICU for three days , suffering from low blood pressure and difficulty breathing. She faces more surgery, and her recovery will be long.
Seeing her in and out of consciousness has given some time to reflect on those large questions — healthcare reform, public options, Grady’s financial struggles, Medicare, Medicaid and the general inequities in life.
Listening to our lawmakers debate grand plans with costly price-tags makes it easy to forget the heart of the matter — how do we take care of those less fortunate than us? We often don’t stop to think about all the individual stories, the personal tragedies and triumphs of our healthcare system.
As a journalist, I have been able to cover stories from that impersonal, objective place — at least one step removed from the agony of the people who surround us every day.
Yet hanging out at the hospital, I thought about what Dr. Louis Sullivan told me earlier this year that we should be a country that shifts from treating sickness to one that promotes wellness. As I looked around Grady, I saw people battling illnesses obviously brought on partly due to their lifestyle, be it obesity or be it poverty.
The experience made me further appreciate the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s Grady Task Force led by Pete Correll and Tom Bell who helped shine the spotlight on the hospital; it made me thankful for the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation’s $200 million gift to help modernize some of Grady’s antiquated medical equipment.
I also was reminded of the talk that Grady Healthcare CEO Mike Young gave to Atlanta’s Rotary Club in June.
Young spoke of the nation’s 55 million uninsured residents who currently turn to public hospitals for health care. All our public hospitals are financially squeezed in that sandwich of caring for the poor and the mounting costs of care.
An annual $10 billion infusion from the federal government in our nation’s public hospitals would go a long ways towards helping our country provide a sound safety net for those who keep being left behind by society.
At that Rotary talk, Young asked the well-heeled crowd if they or their family members had ever gone to Grady for care. Only a handful raised their hands.
I remembered going to Grady as a young girl with my father to visit a family friend who had been severely burned.
When my assistant was diagnosed with full-blown AIDs, I went to visit him at Grady, where he was receiving treatment.
Then there was Russell, a charming and engaging panhandler who claimed a spot right next to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Somehow, I ended up being Russell’s guardian by default — going to Grady when he broke his hip, making sure he would receive all the rehab he needed.
I remembered when Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy severely burned his hands while setting fire to a pile of debris and wood on his property. While at the hospital, Cathy called me saying he wanted to tell the world about what a treasure he had found at Grady.
A few years later, my daughter got third-degree burns. Of course, I took her to Grady where we spent all night in the emergency room — amazed at the life-and-death drama that was taking place before our very eyes.
While we were on a bed out in the hall because all the rooms were filled, we heard a man (who clearly had “turned funny”) repeatedly sing: “Oh Pineapple; Oh Pineapple” to the tune of “O Christmas Tree; O Christmas Tree.” When we passed his room, the medical staff had put up a sign on his door that said: “The Pineapple Suite.”
It just so happened that my friend ended up in that very room on Thanksgiving morning. I wondered how many amazing stories Grady’s doctors and nurses have lived in those three intervening years.
Yes, life is not fair.
But Grady lives on as a great equalizer between those of us who have something and those of us who have next to nothing.