An American Horror Story: Healthcare without Cotton Balls

“Because horror on Earth is real and it is every day. It is like a flower or like the sun; it cannot be contained.”
― Alice SeboldThe Lovely Bones

It has the feel of a horror film; an empty shell of a building, disturbingly quiet, no one to ask for directions when you find yourself lost in a maze of long, empty, white hallways that lead to more empty rooms.  The grand atrium with the high, glass ceiling, the cascading water features and greenery, just as beautiful as when the place opened. For a child, this would be a dream, having the entire place to yourself, running and jumping, free to play and explore.  For me, it evokes feelings of melancholy, remembering times when it was bustling with people.  As it is, you can go an entire day without speaking to a  soul.  Walking the sterile, halls, and hearing nothing but the flickering of the fluorescent lights overhead, and your own footsteps echoing.  It is eerie to think that this 4-story building once bustled with life and the sounds of saving lives.  I wonder if this is what has become of every small-town, hospital.

When my mother-in-law caught the flu, at 89 year-old, it was basically a death sentence.  Although still sharp-minded, witty and ornery, her lungs had reached their life span.  It will happen to all of us, I suppose.  The lifespan of our body’s cells will complete their cycle.  My mother-in-law spent her lifetime living in the same town of her ancestors.  Many generations of her family are buried in the same, small cemetery.  In this day and age, that is unusual. Children move away from their ancestral homes, traveling to various parts of the world, following their jobs or whatever lifestyle suits their fancy.  The smaller towns are dying.  The once vibrant communities, only vaguely resemble their past.  Buildings, once functioning as banks and department stores, now provide wall space for graffiti, sit empty, or house flea markets, privately owned cafés, or any entity that the local Chamber of Commerce can lure to it’s premises.  Apparently, there’s been no exception for the hospitals.

The future is limited for these small-town hospitals servicing communities under 20,000 residents.  This hospital, in particular, once housed specialties such as Urology, Gynecology, Cardiology, and Ear, Nose and Throat.  Residents of outlying communities were able to receive specialized medical care without having to travel distances greater than 50 miles.  By my observations, this hospital will not be able to sustain itself much longer.  The unfortunate physician remaining is forced into medical decision making, outside his, or her, specialty. As we have waited by my mother-in-law’s side, the staff have literally driven to the local pharmacy to make purchases such as cotton balls and anti-rash ointment.  What hospital doesn’t have cotton balls?  This one, apparently.  It is clear that their budget has been reduced to the slimmest fraction of what it once was.  This does not instill confidence that they would be capable of responding to a dire emergency with adequate supplies, much less the latest technology.   If you suffer a life threatening injury or illness, you had better pray for a life flight transport, already en route to a larger hospital, that will have time to stop for you.  If not, you’d better pray that you can survive the extra hour, or possibly four to six hours, in a state the size of Texas, to get to the specialized care that you need.

As each day passes, I am more convinced that choosing to live in a rural town means choosing to live 50 years in the past; reminiscent of the doctor in the horse and buggy era.  Many elderly are reluctant to leave their lifetime homes, and love the simple lifestyle of the small town.  However, access to quality hospital care needs to be a major factor in discerning the best environment for us, as we age.  Being more immunocompromised, and more prone to injury, these hospital visits become more frequent.  The delay in getting the best quality care, means delay in treatment for pain and suffering with each injury.  Those words, pain and suffering, are enough to get my attention.  And I’m not just talking about the end of life suffering, I’m talking about all the sprains and breaks that result from brittle bones and limited agility.  The longer it takes to get care, the longer you go without painkillers, and the longer you suffer. Oh, how I don’t want to suffer.

I begin to consider something I’ve never foreseen as a major dilemma once reaching and advanced age.

Choosing a residence.

It needs to be accessible to airports.  Arriving here, to be with my mother-in-law, required those that arrived by airplane to fly first to a major airport, a smaller flight to a regional airport, then a rental car to destination.  The costs for such travel arrangements cost each family member, well over $1000, not to mention loss of wages from work missed.  If your ailing family member were well enough to think clearly and logically, they would not want to put their family through that burden or financial strain.

At one time, my desire would have been to spend my last years in the home most comforting to me.  Now, I’m changing my tune.  I will be considering my family, while I’m still of sound mind and body.  I don’t want my family members to be obligated to care for me 24/7.  Saving for those later-in-life expenses, begins now.  When we say, “I’m saving for retirement.” My prior image was of travel and recreation.  A nursing home, or assisted-living community, however unappealing at this age, is now part of my long-term plan, as well as, a hospital, a fully-functioning hospital, one that has cotton balls; lots and lots of cotton balls.

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