Sunday, March 9, 2008

A Patient Keels Over in my Taxi

I drove a taxi in college. I learned very quickly to dread being dispatched to the emergency room of the public (read "socialized") hospital. It was a zoo, overcrowded and understaffed.

Whenever people tell me they think the government can provide quality healthcare, I tell them to go into the ER of the nearest public hospital, or wander through a veterans' hospital. Both are zoos, with long lines and poor care. Both are apparently run by the rejects from the DMV.

My mother worked in the ER of a Catholic hospital. The difference between her workplace and every government hospital I'd been in verged on astonishing. It was the difference between night and day.

The first time I'd been dispatched to the public hospital the nurse had put an 80-year-old woman in my charge. No one told me she couldn't walk, or that she didn't have a wheelchair, or that she lived on the third floor of an apartment building. A $27 ride turned into a $37 one, since I charged the hospital for having to carry her up the stairs.

I may have solved the problem by carrying her in my arms up those three flights of stairs. But as far as I'm concerned, the State, the public hospital, and for that matter, I, put her life in danger. I could have dropped her. But since the hospital had thrown her at me, and washed its hands of her, I really didn't have much choice, except to drive off and leave the little old lady sitting at the ER.

The second problem I had at this hospital was when I got a call to transport a patient all of two blocks to a nursing home located on the same street as the hospital. It was possibly a $1.50 ride -- a dollar to turn the meter on and 50 cents to get him from the hospital to the home.

The orderly brought out a severely retarded man who appeared to be in his middle 50s. He looked to be incapable of speech. The orderly gave me a voucher and told me to escort this man inside the nursing home. No problem, I thought.

I made a right out of the ER's parking lot, another right at the corner, then another right at the next corner. This put me in front of the hospital.

Then, for no discernible reason, my passenger keeled over in the back seat.

I didn't even stop. I made three right turns back into the ER's lot, jumped out, grabbed the orderly I'd dealt with, and said: "The guy you just put in my car has just passed out in my back seat."

The orderly glanced in my back seat, then commented, "Oh, he's just having an epileptic seizure."

We placed him on a stretcher and they wheeled him inside. I had never seen a seizure before (although I have seen them since) and for all I knew he could have flopped around like a landed fish.

Inside, I found he just lay there and quivered. It was really no big deal. They don't swallow their tongues.

The next guy I saw was a deputy sheriff who got stiff as a board and drummed his heels on the floor. He wasn't taking enough of his medication. When he woke up he was fine, just exhausted.

What annoyed me was that the hospital personnel didn't even bother to tell me he was epileptic. I knew what they were thinking: he's only going down the street. What are the chances? Pretty good, it turned out.

The hospital could have put an orderly in the back seat with him. The ride would have cost about $4 for me to bring the orderly back to the hospital.

When I started to close my back door I also found out that epileptics sometimes lose control of their bladders. My back seat was light-colored cloth, with a large dark wet spot on it. As usual, I just sighed.

The $1.50 ended up costing the hospital $15, after I got the back seat cleaned and dried. They didn't complain. They never did. I would have gone to the newspaper, even if I had gotten fired.

The next ride I took, the man said, "You know, your back seat is a little damp."

"A passenger spilled a soda," I told him. "I thought I had gotten it dried."

When I was a little kid, less than four, my mother told me I wasn't a very good liar, because I would stutter. Those days are long gone.

I didn't mind transporting the guy or his having a seizure. I didn't even mind him urinating in my car. I did mind the hospital not telling me he was an epileptic, and not having an orderly accompany him.

When I told mother about this, she got a funny look on her face and said, "I've never heard of any hospital using a taxi to transport a patient like that. What kind of place of this?"

Why, it's a socialized, government-run hospital, I told her.

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