The Shame in Breaking Records
Take a closer look at the nation's largest free health clinic
I have always had a competitive personality. I have always tried to inspire those around me to win. But when I found myself on CNN on Saturday afternoon announcing that we had made history, I didn't feel an ounce of pride. Instead, I felt the underlying frustration that has slowly boiled every time I look into the face of a person on whom I am about to perform surgery who has no means of affording the care they need because they lack health insurance. I wanted to channel this outrage and use my new show as a way to put a face to these people.
Helping the uninsured
We picked Houston because it has the highest rate of people living without insurance in the nation—30 percent, or about 1.3 million residents. Texas leads all 50 states with 25 percent of its residents living without insurance; the national average is a whopping 15 percent. We announced the clinic last week, and after an article appeared in the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday, preregistration surged and we had to close appointments by early Friday afternoon with 2,000 people scheduled to receive free healthcare. Saturday turned out to be the largest health relief mobilization in Houston since Hurricane Katrina. More than 700 doctors, nurses and volunteers turned out to help. The part you have to understand about Saturday is that it wasn't in response to a disaster—it was just another day in Houston.
And show up they did. They came as entire families. Many drove hours to get there; others hitchhiked. I walked out at 5 a.m. and greeted the first woman in line, Karen, a school teacher who could not keep up with her insurance payments. Think about it for moment: sitting on the pavement at 5 a.m. in the dark, waiting for a massive convention center to open just to see a doctor. This is what it's come to, and it should frustrate you as well. So many patients had tragic stories that still burn in my heart. Most were embarrassed to seek help and many felt invisible in society, like they didn't matter anymore.
Meet the patients in need of healthcare
Anthony DeLane saw the free clinic on television that morning and decided to show up for problems he was having with his foot. Anthony actually had a diabetic foot ulcer with exposed bone that led to a serious infection making its way up his leg. People often lose toes or feet at this advanced stage. Anthony works long hours as a commercial driver but doesn't have health insurance. He was rushed to the hospital and will get the care he needs to hopefully save his foot. Can you imagine the irony of a truck driver losing his foot so he can no longer work, all because he could not afford health coverage?
These stories put a face on 47 million Americans without coverage. Many are hardworking people who took wrong turns in their lives; 83 percent of the 4 million people seen last year in free clinics were employed. Analeigha's mother worked. Anthony DeLane worked. Bobby Parker had worked her whole life. Should working people not have the option to see doctors when bones are protruding from their feet? If most of the people we saw Saturday were employed, it should be apparent to all of us that many people are one paycheck away from losing their existing insurance. These people work hard. They went to school. They deserve better from us.
Fixing our healthcare system
Smart people are working on the legal and financial nuances of fixing healthcare in America. Others are creating a distraction for reasons I can't imagine. My best contribution is to bear witness to the true nature of the life-threatening struggle facing one in seven Americans and make them real to my television audience and the American people so our policymakers have the empathy of the electorate while making decisions. My hope is that we get to a day when I never have to watch an echocardiogram on a floor normally reserved for rodeo trade shows. My hope is that no one else ever has to break our record. While I am proud that the patients understood someone loved and cared about them and got them desperately needed care, I feel a sense of shame that Saturday had to happen at all. Do you?
Originally appeared in Huffington Post on September 28, 2009.
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