by Carey Kriz
Anna is an 87-year-old woman, living with her husband in a Boston suburb. She has lived in the same house for more than sixty years with the only husband she has ever known. Her town is in one of those places that reminds you of the 1950s stories of neighbors that know each other and help each other when needed.
But one part of her life is definitely in the twenty-first century. It is how she is treated by our health care system.
The story for Anna started about nine months ago. It was then that Anna’s husband was diagnosed with a severe form of stomach cancer. His life, and hers, became a series of doctor visits, hospital stays, and treatments that spanned from surgery to chemical therapies. Stomach cancer is a sometimes painful and often deadly disease.
And when it became the worst—which was when I went to visit her last week—she had a husband that was dying in their home, and Anna had the new job of taking care of him. Anna was told that she would be the one giving her husband of over sixty years his daily injections of medications with names she couldn’t pronounce. She had used her allotment of home health care visits and was now on her own according to her health care “benefits” coordinator.
Anna is 87, has never had medical training, and has never given a shot to anyone. She is also getting more confused every day, which is something you would expect given her age and the loss she knows is about to happen.
It is a tough thing to lose a partner of over sixty years. It is even tougher knowing that you are being asked to take on a job that you don’t understand. How do you become a doctor or nurse in one day?
While her husband is a victim of disease, Anna is victim of a system that has turned medicine into a business. Today we measure our health care system by percentages, dollar amounts, and reimbursement rates. If you have commercial insurance, you can expect to see one set of care providers and be allowed to take another set of drugs. If you come into a hospital with Medicaid or without insurance, God help you. Be prepared for heartaches, crummy service, and possible bankruptcy.
We have a mess of contradictions and inequities. Where did the compassion go?
Maybe it saves money. Having a nurse or other health care professional visit Anna’s house would have cost money. So having someone visit her husband and helping him manage these last days of his life would add more dollars to a system that everyone knows has gotten overly expensive.
Maybe it moves responsibility back to the family. If you and I were forced to manage the health care mess we created, maybe we would have better health habits and take better care of ourselves. Anna should, with this thinking, be prepared to care for someone close to her.
But something is wrong with this story. Why do we seem to forget that health care is ultimately about human relationships? Taking care of people should mean exactly that—helping them when they are down or lost or sad or can’t take care of themselves.
Medicine should not be a business that asks an 87-year-old woman to become a health care provider for a dying husband. In this era of unending complexity and anywhere/anytime information, the calling of medicine is in danger of losing its heart and soul.
It’s time to take control of the system again. Know where we can find some good leaders?
Carey Kriz is the author of The Patient Will See You Now: How Advances in Science, Medicine, and Technology Will Lead to a Personalized Health Care System (Rowman & Littlefield).