The Healthcare Crisis Gets Personal

By Jim Wallis 12-07-2007

Joy and I woke up yesterday morning at 5:00 a.m. to the sounds of our screaming four-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 or gently rub his sore tummy. This was not like him at all; he is not an overreactive kid. We had to go get him at school that day because he was vomiting and had diarrhea. He had a quiet afternoon at home and went to sleep easily, but now was literally wailing and inconsolable.

It's every parent's greatest fear - a sick child, maybe very sick, and in the middle of the night. How serious might it be? Could it be appendicitis - or something equally bad? This wasn't like Jack. Then nine-year-old Luke, who had been awakened by Jack's crying, was in our room too - tired, scared, and also crying. What should we do? I called our health provider and got a nurse advisor. After I described Jack's symptoms and distress, she said, "Take him to the emergency room at Children's Hospital." So we threw clothes on and rushed out to the garage. There was snow on the ground and ice on the steps as I carried my screaming and scared little boy. "Why didn't I put on boots with a grip?" I asked myself, as I carefully but hurriedly climbed down the treacherous steps with Jack in my arms.

We got in the car and 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. Luke joined in the prayers. We arrived at the ER, and I rushed in with Jack while Joy and Luke went to park the car.

It's the moment of panicked parenthood, rushing into the emergency room with your suffering and frightened child, almost frantically surveying the room for where you should go. "He's got severe abdominal pains; we need to see a doctor now!" I almost shout to the first person I encounter. I am in no mood to fill out papers and forms and talk about insurance coverage as I slap Jack's insurance card on the reception desk.

Fortunately, we are quickly accepted and admitted. They are all very attentive, compassionate, and professional. From the intake personnel, to the nurses, to the doctors (we were lucky enough to get the head of the ER who was on his shift just them), everybody was clearly competent and concerned. Joy and Luke rushed in soon after we did and we were all taken to a clean and quiet room where Jack was quickly and comprehensively examined. They spoke reassuringly as they looked at our little boy, telling us what they were going to do and what the possibilities were. Right away they got an IV to hydrate him and administer some pain-reducing medicine that was gentle for children. He got quieter and seemed to relax.

I saw a hospital system focus on a little boy with time, energy, concern, and (I assume) lots of financial resources. They did several X-rays of his stomach, chest, and lungs, and even did a comprehensive 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 up, sit, 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 such vulnerable and trusting eyes and said, "Even if my tummy can't smile." Afterward, I knew he was becoming himself again when he began to make several observations about the environment around him and philosophized, "When you're sad, and they turn you upside down, it turns into a smile." Yes, I said, amazed at how perspective does indeed change everything.

Joy was running Luke to school now, as Jack and I moved around the hospital for all the tests, in what we began to call his "traveling bed," which he thought was quite cool. Jack's big brother Luke was really worried and kept pressing his mom on whether Jack was okay and "wasn't going to die, right?" She assured him that his little brother was in very good hands now and would be alright. "Without Jack, life would be nothing," Luke tearfully lamented. "The first four years of my life were really boring!" he exclaimed to his moved and bemused mother.

She was back now in the hospital after dropping Luke off at school. Jack was resting comfortably back in our safe little room in the ER, and the doctor came in to tell us the results of all the testing, X-rays, and diagnosis. "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 the antibiotic right then and there, 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 home and I got the antibiotic that was so critical to his healing at our health care provider's pharmacy. It was $10. And all the other care my son had received that morning was already paid for by our insurance. Jack was home, comfortable, and safe; while his mom and dad were greatly relieved. After Luke borrowed his fourth grade teacher's cell phone to call home to see how Jack was, he was finally relieved too.

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 this morning made it all very personal. Every parent, no matter who they are and where they live, can easily have the kind of trauma over the health of a child that we had. 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 the children as much as God loves Jack, and its time to build a health care system in this country that respects that fundamental moral affirmation.

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