Sunday, March 9, 2008

A Crippled Lil' Ol' Lady in a Wheelchair

Anyone who thinks the way to fix the health-care system is to socialize it even more should go into a Veterans' Administration hospital or a "public" hospital. Medical care can't get much more socialized -- or worse -- than these two hospitals.

I had never been in either a veterans' hospital or a public hospital until I drove a taxi when I was in college. I made it into a public (read "welfare") hospital before a veterans' one.

When I first got the public-hospital call on my radio, the dispatcher asked me, "Can you handle a wheelchair?" No problem, I assured him. I'll just stick it into the trunk of my Chevy Caprice. I'd done it before dealing with people at other hospitals, and at their homes.

When I walked into the emergency room of the hospital....ugh. It was dingy, overcrowded, and understaffed. My mother worked as an admitting clerk in an emergency room, and I was used to clean, professional places, not this. There was no way I would go to an ER like this one, unless I was brought here against my will.

I found the nurse whose name my dispatcher had given to me. She looked harried and overworked. I felt sorry for her the instant I laid eyes on her. She did not look happy. She looked like she wanted to be someplace else.

When I asked, "You have a woman in a wheelchair for me?" she pointed to a Crippled Lil' Ol' Lady in a Wheelchair. The CLOLiaW appeared to be 80/80 -- 80 years old and 80 pounds.

The nurse gave me the voucher to pay for the ride, I introduced myself to the my passenger -- "Hi, Lil' Ol' Lady! You want to go home?" -- who smiled a mostly toothless smile at me, then I pushed her out to my taxi.

She told me she had fallen down at home and severely bruised her hip. At her age I was surprised she hadn't broken it. I locked the brakes on the wheelchair, opened the door to my cab, and put my arms around the CLOL to help her stand up. She stood up without any problems, raised her right foot to take a step, and went:


Then her right foot wobbled down after having moved one inch closer to my taxi.

I stopped. "Are you okay?" I asked her.

"It hurts when I try to walk," she told me.

I looked at the CLOL and at the door to my taxi. The closest I could get her was about three feet because of the feetrests on the wheelchair.

"Okay, let's try it again," I said.

She raised her left foot -- "AAAAAHHHHH!!!!" -- then her foot came down after having moved another inch. I made a quick estimate. Thirty-six inches, thirty-six screams, a minute per inch, an inch per scream! Approximately 36 minutes to get her into my taxi, screams included!

"Here, sit back down in your wheelchair," I told her. "I'll be right back."

This whole Twilight Zone episode was ridiculous. The hospital should not be dumping Crippled Lil' Ol' Ladies on taxi drivers. Where my mother worked they would call a van with a wheelchair lift.

I found the nurse whom I had dealt with before. Here was the conversation:

"That woman is so crippled I cannot get her into my taxi," I told her. "You should really call someone else who can handle this situation. A van with a lift, maybe."

The nurse got a frozen, indeed terrified, smile on her face, squeezed my left bicep and said, "You're a big strong man. You can handle it." She was pleading with me, Please go away! I'm overworked!

I sighed and left.

"Look, lil' ol' lady," I told the Lil' Ol' Lady, "the only way I can get you into this car is to pick you up and put you in it." We were not supposed to do this, because of our insurance. Imagine if I had dropped her and she had ended up not with a bruised hip but a broken one. Worse, imagine if she had croaked. I could just imagine her doing the Drop, Bounce Once, and Kick. (Thud. "Uh...hello? Hello?")

"Okay," said the Lil' Ol' Lady instantly. I sympathized with her. She wanted to go home. If I had been sitting in a wheelchair in the emergency-room version of Dante's Inferno, I'd want to go home, too.

I unlocked the wheelchair, put my right arm under the LOL's knees, my left arm around her back, lifted her up and kicked the wheelchair backwards out of my way. Oof! Eighty pounds is a lot to pick up in your arms, even though there wasn't much to this woman.

"Ow! Ow! Ow!" went the LOL.

I ignored the cries and put her in my backseat. "Are you okay?" I asked. "Ow! Ow! Ow!" she answered. "Yes! Ow! I'm Ow! okay Ow! now! Thank Ow! you! Ow!"

The LOL told me her address. Hey, not bad! A $25 ride! Maybe things were starting to look up.

Things started looking down again when I pulled up in front of the LOL's "home" 15 minutes later. When she had said "home" I had thought "house." She lived in an old, three-story brick apartment building, the kind built in the 1890's.

Oh....foooo...., I thought. Then it hit me: these places have no elevators! Wait a minute! What floor did she live on? How was I supposed to get her inside?!

"Uh....what floor do you live on?" I asked the LOL.

"I live on the third floor," she answered. "I was in the hospital because I fell down the stairs."

I sat there with my mouth open. How was I supposed to get her up to the third floor? She couldn't walk! Oh no! How was I supposed to get her to the entrance of the building? I had been thinking "home, with people living there who could help because they have a wheelchair." ARRGH! I am an idiot!

Fortunately, as I sat there completely brain-locked, the door to the building opened and out came two Lil' Ol' Ladies and one Lil' Ol' Man. I suddenly realized all six apartments in the building were occupied by Lil' Ol' People. They swarmed the car like Munchkins.

"Mabel's here!" one of the LOP told another. Mabel? This woman's name was really Mabel?

They actually were very solicitous and ended up being pretty helpful. They took Mabel's purse and used her keys to open her door on the third floor.

"Mabel," I told her, "you know I'm going to have to carry you up the sidewalk and up the stairs into your apartment."

"I know," she said.

I had this vision of my carrying her in my arms up the sidewalk, looking just like Gort carrying Patricia Neal in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

"I could get on your back," she suggested. She really said that to me. An 80-year-old woman asked me to give her a piggy-back ride up three flights of stairs.

Oh, sure! I thought. And what if she slid off? What was I supposed to do then? And what if I toppled backwards down the stairs, her legs locked around my midsection, me turning blue and with my eyes bulging out of their sockets as she clamped her arms around my neck? That would be just great! She'd be lying on her back with her arms and legs sticking up in the air like a dead bug! I imagined the headline: CAB DRIVER CRASHES DOWN STAIRS, CRUSHES, KILLS CRIPPLED LIL' OL' LADY.

"I'll carry you in my arms," I told her.

This was going to be a bad one, I knew. Carrying an 80-pound Lil' Ol' Lady in my arms and up three flights of stairs was going to put a crick in me.

"Okay, here we go," I told her. I scooped her up in my arms ("Ow! Ow! Ow!") and began to walk to the door with this 80-pound doll. Trying to make things easier, she put her arms around my neck. I had the vague thought that was the first time in 20 years she'd had her arms around a man's neck. Well, I hoped she was enjoying all of this, because I sure wasn't.

I was still doing okay when I got to the entrance. The Lil' Ol' People held the door open for me. As soon as I stepped inside -- WHOOM. Well, I'm in the oven, but where's the baked potatoes? It was 90 degrees inside!

"Is it always this hot in here?" I asked one of the Lil' Ol' People.

"The stairwell doesn't have air-conditioning," a Lil' Ol' Lady told me. Then she added, "But each of us has one in our apartments."

Well, thank God for that! This heat would kill an old person in several minutes. And this was on the first floor. The top landing must be an inferno.

Clomp, clomp, clomp up the stairs I went. I had gone from 175 pounds to 255 pounds with her added weight. I was pouring sweat by the time I got to the first landing. The old saying is that "women glow, men perspire and horses sweat." Well, I had just turned into Mr. Ed the Talking Horse!

"I have to rest for a second," I told the LOL in my arms.

"Please don't drop me," she asked.

"I don't plan on it," I told her. I thought about a movie I had heard about, God is my Co-Pilot. I certainly needed a co-pilot right about then. Years later I thought about how nice it would have been if I could have strapped her to a dolly like Hannibal Lecter and then just bumped her up the stairs.

My arms were doing okay, but I was already out of breath and my heart was pounding. I leaned against the wall. That would have made a heck of a photo. A cab driver with an 80-year-old woman in his arms, resting by leaning backward against a wall, with sweat pouring out of him! After about a minute I was okay again. Then I rested on the second landing. It was also getting hotter.

One more flight, I told myself.

Up to the third landing and yay! the Lil' Ol' People had the door open and were waiting inside. There's her bed in the living room! And damn! it was ICE COLD inside her apartment. I put her on her bed as gently as I could, which probably wasn't too gently considering the near-spent condition I was in. Then I stuck my head in front of the air-conditioner.

The other three Lil Ol' People were in Mabel's apartment, fussing around her, making sure she wasn't about ready to kick the bucket after her Adventures in a Taxicab.

"Who put all of you people into these apartments?" I asked. It certainly seemed all of them should have been in a retirement home with elevators and air-conditioning everywhere.

"The government did," one answered. I asked a few more questions and found out all of them were retired and living on Social Security and various small pensions. They received government assistance for their apartments, gas and electricity. The water was included in the rent.

All of their assistance came from different accounts to pay for the rent, gas and electricity. That made no sense to me. I figured some bureaucrat had stuck all of them into the cheapest apartment possible, not realizing the money saved was more than lost by paying for air-conditioning and heat. These old apartments were built when it cost five dollars a month to heat them. They leaked like sieves.

I also suspected whoever put these people into these apartments had no idea there were elderly people living on the third floor. Can't the government do anything right? I wondered. This isn't that hard!

Right about then I had an epiphany. The reason the public hospital had called a cab is because we were the cheapest method of transportation there was! That had dumped this Lil' Ol' Lady on me and then washed their hands of her! They wouldn't call a van with a wheelchair lift because of the price. And did it occur to anyone at the hospital that this lady couldn't walk? Just push her out the door and then say, "It's not my problem anymore"?

"Ohhh," I went.

After everything was taken care of I went out to the cab. The meter read $27. I put the amount of the voucher and added $10. For an explanation I wrote everything that had happened on the back. I was paid the whole amount, and never heard a word.

And if you think this is a horror story, someday I'll tell you about the Veterans' Hospital.

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