The Common Good
August 2008

A Visit to the ER

by Jim Wallis | August 2008

Unequal access to medical care has made death a social disease.

Healing is both a major subject of faith and now a global crisis with the breakdown of public health-care systems and the breakout of pandemic diseases. Megachurch pastors hold conferences on HIV/AIDS and malaria, while faith-based organizations are often in the forefront of responding to the world’s most lethal diseases. The grotesquely unequal access to lifesaving drugs and medical care has made death a social disease.

To guide our search for more humane and effective health care, we will need to establish some principles: for example, that health care should be a human right and not a commodity for sale, and that wealth should not determine one’s share of health in our world. We need to build consensus on principles and priorities if we are to address successfully the enormous challenges of public health in a world of massive inequalities. And until something is done to make universal health care a reality in America, millions of families will remain poor.

A few months ago, I had a personal experience that brought it all home. My wife, Joy, and I woke up early one morning to the sounds of our screaming 4-year-old, Jack, who was suffering from extreme abdominal pain. We tried to console and cuddle him, but to no avail. “Don’t touch me, it really hurts!” he cried when we tried to examine his sore tummy. This was not like him at all; he is not an overreactive kid.

It’s every parent’s greatest fear—a sick child, maybe very sick, and in the middle of the night. Then 9-year-old Luke, awakened by Jack’s crying, was also in our room—scared and crying. I called our health provider and got a nurse adviser. After I described Jack’s symptoms and distress, she said, “Take him to the emergency room at Children’s Hospital.” We threw clothes on and rushed out to the car, then headed into the deserted Washington, D.C. streets on our way to an emergency room we hoped and prayed was not too busy. Joy drove with Luke, who was asking all kinds of worried questions, while I tried to calm Jack (and myself) in the back seat by praying out loud that God would keep him safe.

We arrived at the ER and rushed in. It’s the moment of panicked parenthood, rushing into the emergency room with your suffering and frightened child, frantically surveying the room for where you should go. “He’s got severe abdominal pains; we need to see a doctor now!” I almost shouted to the first person I encountered. I was in no mood to fill out forms and talk about insurance coverage as I slapped Jack’s insurance card on the reception desk.

Fortunately, we were quickly accepted and admitted. From the intake personnel to the nurses and doctors, everyone was attentive, compassionate, and clearly competent. We were all taken to a quiet room where Jack was comprehensively exa­mined. They spoke reassuringly as they looked at our little boy, telling us what they were going to do. Right away they got an IV to hydrate him and administer some gentle pain-reducing medicine for children. He got quieter and seemed to relax.

I saw a hospital focus on a little boy with concern and (I assume) lots of financial resources. They did X-rays of his stomach, chest, and lungs, and even an ultrasound to look for any sign of an inflamed appendix. The medicine was working its wonders and Jack was getting sleepy. But I had to wake him and stand him up for the X-rays. My little trooper was a star as he stood still the best he could, even after such a traumatic morning, waiting for the technician to “take a picture of your tummy,” as I told him. He looked up at me with vulnerable and trusting eyes and said, “Even if my tummy can’t smile.”

While Joy took Luke to school, Jack and I moved around the hospital for all the tests, in what we began to call his “traveling bed.” When she returned, Jack was resting comfortably as the doctor came in to tell us the results of all the tests. “Your son has pneumonia,” he said, shocking us both. A nagging cough had settled into his left lung and was making him vomit while putting very painful pressure on his diaphragm and abdomen. But they were going to start administering an antibiotic, and, with a couple days of rest and quiet, he would start to get better. And there was no sign of appendicitis.

SEVERAL HOURS after our frightful awakening, we got Jack safely home and his mom and dad were greatly relieved. I got the antibiotic that was so critical to his healing at our health-care provider’s pharmacy for $10. All the other care my son had received that morning was already paid for by our insurance. But I began to think how different this all would have been if we were a family who didn’t have health insurance and therefore hesitated or were afraid to go to the emergency room. Or if we were “undocumented” and were terrified to take our child to a hospital. Or if we were parents in Uganda living hundreds of miles from a doctor and just had to listen to our screaming child and hope that he wouldn’t die.

My policy views on health-care reform are very public. But that morning made it all very personal. Every parent, no matter who they are and where they live, can easily have the kind of trauma we had over the health of a child. And every parent should have the medical care that we got. It’s just wrong if they don’t. What I realized most was how important it is for those who have that care to fight for those who don’t. Other parents love their children just as fiercely as we love Jack, pray just as fervently for their healing, and have the right—as absolutely equally important children of God—to good and affordable health care. God loves all children as much as God loves Jack, and it’s time to build a health-care system in this country that respects that fundamental moral affirmation.

There are a variety of proposals that might work, but a new principle of health care as a human right must guide us. Jesus made healing a principal sign of his ministry and of the presence of the kingdom of God. From a biblical point of view, it is simply wrong when health becomes a commodity and accessibility depends upon wealth.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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