Holiness and Health
By Charles Rush
February 18, 2001
Mark 2: 1-12
yone involved in health care these
days knows just how difficult the situation really is.
I attended a meeting with the Chief Administrator at Overlook Hospital
in which we reviewed three different scenarios: bad,
worse, and apocalyptic.
It reminded me of a commencement address given by Woody Allen
many years ago in which he told the graduates: “More than at any time in history, humanity faces a crossroads.
One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other leads to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
started out in ministry as a chaplain in the emergency room at the University
Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, in the early eighties. It was colorful work.
University was a public hospital and a teaching hospital right downtown. It was
over a hundred years old when I worked there, designed for an era before
electric lights, with a large open wards that held up to a hundred patients. On
those floors you had a little bit of everything. It wasn’t unusual at all to
see policemen with prisoners. The prisoners had their legs chained to the bed
and the police guarded by setting next to them. There was always at least one
indigent fellow that was on the ward drying out. Usually they had the DT’s so
bad that they had to be tied down to the bed to keep them from hurting
themselves or someone else. They had a low level moaning or kvetching or
complaining that the staff was trying to do them in for good. Some of them
could moan out for an hour at a time “help me, won’t someone help me.” Help in
this case would be a fresh bottle of MD 20/20 and a pack of smokes. No one on
the ward ever had a spare bottle, least of all the chaplains, so we heard a lot
of moaning. And there were a lot of people there that were seriously injured.
We were a regional trauma hospital, so all of the accidents with 100 miles of
Louisville were helicoptered in to our emergency room.
had a quick immersion into the health care in the life of the poor in our
country that summer. Some of it was oddly humorous. The first week I was there,
we had a woman that came walking into the ER covered from her head to her waist
in blood. She stood about 6’3”, weighed in the range of 350 lbs., strode
straight ahead and demanded instant service as she was in a hurry. When the
staff saw blood everywhere, they panicked. It turns out they were all
superficial wounds. One of her neighbors owed her $50. She sent her boys over
to collect payment to no avail. She called him up and he stopped answering the
phone. Finally, on Saturday night, she needed her money and she went over to
his house herself and began rapping on his door. And she rapped and she rapped
and hollored at him for the whole neighborhood to hear. She wasn’t leaving til
he came out and gave her some money. This went on for quite some time. I guess
he had enough and opened the door with a shotgun. It was a very light weight
gauge and apparently loaded with the lightest bird shot. She stepped back off
the porch, he fired, she fell to the ground and jumped straight up.
Unfortunately for him, it was only a single shot and she was on him before he
could say boo. Got in quite a few good raps on his head. Now they were both in
the ER, with neighbors and extended family. They called the Chaplain to keep
the peace down in the waiting room. I’ll never forget asking one of the
residents exactly what I was supposed to do. He said, ‘keep them from stabbing
each other.’ The high and holy calling of pastoral ministry. Indeed, some of
them were planning a bloody revenge. It was a long night.
times it was tragic. One night we had a young man checked in about the age of
15. He was enormous in size, experiencing diabetic shock. The ER got him
stabilized and sent him to CCU. A large retinue of relatives followed him and
sat vigil outside his room. They were simple country people of very limited
mental abilities. For reasons I never quite understood, they distrusted doctors
so the residents asked me to help communicate some things to them.
boy had been diagnosed with diabetes for a long time and the physicians had
prescribed medicine and a strict regimen of diet for him. His family followed
the diet some of the time. They gave him the insulin when he seemed real sick.
But diabetes is something you have to deal with all the time, every day. When
you asked these folks what they had for lunch and dinner, it was sugar and
starch, sugar and starch (and alcohol)- a diabetic nightmare. He got sicker and
sicker, finally went into shock, and they brought him to the hospital. Over a
period of several days, I talked to them and they seemed to understand about
taking the medicine all the time. One day a case worker from social services
called me and told me that she had been through the same thing with these folks
a few years ago but they apparently didn’t listen and this boy had been in the
hospital on a couple other occasions like this one.
believe his kidneys were failing and his heart was under too much stress. I got
a call in the middle of the night and got up to the floor. A couple of interns
were working very hard. Everyone was exhausted tired. Nothing was working. We
had a new nurse that night that knew nothing about this case and another nurse
was filling her in as the doctors worked to no avail. When she heard about the
family history, she said, ‘what happens to kids like this?
after that, I went out to talk to the family and tell them that their son had
died. It was dark in the hall, someone was hugging the mother of this boy. The
men stood around just quiet, each in their own thoughts. We stood in a circle
of about 10-12 people. I said a prayer for him. Someone said, “I guess it was
God’s will.” I was so sad, I couldn’t say anything that night and I’m not sure
what I could have said that would have actually communicated to these folks. I
just remember thinking, “this is never God’s will.” I suspect that this family
was doing about all that they were capable of doing but it wasn’t good enough. Poverty
married to ignorance is like that.
a weird way, I liked University Hospital, mostly because everyone was there. In
one afternoon, I met a biology professor that wanted me to read the book of
Mormon with an open mind- and let me tell you that takes a very open mind- and
visited with the Outlaws, the motorcycle gang, because one of their girls had
been shot. Over and over in the midst of a religious conversation, I had to
remind them, you can’t smoke in the ICU hallway. There are lots and lots and lots
of people in our country that live on limited incomes, have special needs, were
born with limited abilites. The ER in a major urban hospital is like jury duty,
you meet all of them there. In a strange way, I like that, because for me,
morally speaking, we all ought to have about the same access to health care.
summer was the beginning of the era in which we now live. That summer a health
maintenance organization, Humana, began buying up hospitals in Louisville. I
believe there were 9 hospitals and Humana bought up 6 of them. You may recall
that apocalyptic predictions were on the forefront of medical care in the early
80’s. Costs for fixed care were projected to grow at double-digit inflation,
the state born cost of covering indigent care expected to continue to grow to
the point that we were predicting fiscal insolvency for most of our hospitals.
Everywhere the cry was heard for controlling costs and this was the great
promise that management teams like Humana promised. With wholesale scope for services
and cutting unnecessary tests and procedures, health care premiums would be
held in check and affordable for the broad middle class in our country.
the time I was dubious about this approach and I continue to be dubious about
it, though it is clear that we have a serious issue on our hands. I am dubious
because of the original mission of our hospitals. Up until the 80’s if you went
to the vast majority of the cities in our country, you could go to the
University hospital, the teaching hospital. Usually there was also a General
Hospital, often also the teaching hospital. Often there was a County regional
hospital. And almost all the rest were religious. There was a Baptist Hospital,
a Methodist Hospital, a Catholic Hospital, a Jewish Hospital. That is because
health care was considered to be a mission outreach of the Church and Synagogue
and if we’d had more Muslims settle our country, it would be an outreach of the
hospitals had a mission of to heal out of spiritual convictions. Very often
they took their mission statement as a version of our gospel story this
morning. A man was sick and in need of healing. He couldn’t bring himself to
the healer, Jesus. So his friends carried him. The house was too crowded for
him to get in, so they opened the roof. They got him what he needed. And this
was the way that the administration of these hospitals ran. They had people in
charge that were medically trained but also a lot of people with a spiritual
disposition. The boards were comprised of good Catholics at the Catholic
Hospital that thought about what they were going to do and not going to do in
light of what it meant to be Catholic. And there were a number of Catholic
volunteers in these hospitals who were there because Jesus taught us that being
a good neighbor means binding up the wounds of those who are in need and that
is what they wanted to do. No question, these hospitals didn’t always live up
to their mission statements but they had a mission statement and
that was important.
Humana bought up these hospitals, they changed their policy towards indigent
care. Unless it was a life-threatening emergency, they stopped admitting
patients who didn’t have health care. Legally there was nothing to prevent them
from doing that. There was nothing illegal but there was something
profoundly immoral. Since they didn’t advertise it, we first noticed it
at University Hospital because there was a mild to substantial increase in our
ER traffic. University Hospital had no choice but to admit all patients. We
were a state hospital, not a private one. After a few months went by,
University was swamped with indigent care and we began hearing stories from our
patients that had been sent over to us in labor, with broken arms because they
were uninsured and not eligible for Medicaid.
were incredulous. The whole system had worked in the past because each hospital
bore some of the indigent and absorbed it into their overall operating budget.
The University Hospital always had most of the indigent care, but we didn’t
have all of it. For many of the
physicians, it seemed tantamount to a gross violation of the Hippocratic Oath,
which has a clear pledge to work for the social health of the community, not
just the wealthy patients.
for some of us, it was an ugly reminder of a by-gone Jim Crow era when black
folks in the South were only admitted to colored hospitals. There were many
tragic stories from that era, like that of the great Jazz Singer Bessie Smith,
who was on tour with her band when they were involved in a terrible car
accident. The white hospital wouldn’t treat her for racial reasons. After a
prolonged argument, she died en route to the colored hospital on the other side
of town. It is just not right.
a few months of this went on, University Hospital had a series of meetings
because they were projecting that they would go bankrupt in a matter of months
if nothing was done about the situation. Disaster was averted but a fundamental
shift had taken place. Medicine was no longer a community wide spiritual
mission. It was now simply a professional service that was offered on
contractual business terms. It was a small step over a cavernous crevice from
saying that medicine needed to reign in costs to deploying business managers to
run the hospitals like corporations. The poor remain an ethical obligation,
sure, but now the challenge is primarily understood as a legal liability rather
than a mission. The difference is huge.
remain in the midst of those throes into the foreseeable future. This week I
got a call from a friend of mine, a physician near retirement. He explained to
me that his hospital recently got a grant from a family to renovate a whole
floor in the hospital for what we might call Platinum service. Every room on
this floor would be private, replete with a number of amenities not presently
available- internet access, some valet services, a private Chef for the floor.
The idea was to create a first class hospital experience. There would be a
charge on top of your normal insurance payment that would come out of pocket.
With the grant for renovation, the idea was to keep the extra daily rate
slightly above the price for a premium hotel. Interest in the project was
made an observation that I have heard repeatedly from people in the medical
field who have been at the work for many years. We are rapidly moving towards a
four tiered system of health care in this country. First, there are those that
can afford to pay premium price, partly out of pocket. They have access to features
that are phenomenal.
Secondly, there are those
that are those that can afford the HMO benefits. In all ways, this group looks
increasingly like the harried economy travelers on a marginal airline- cramped
seats, booked full, maybe a bag of peanuts, circling the Newark Airport for an
extra hour and a half. This group has to be advocates for their health care,
particularly if they have specific medical needs. I’ve heard dozens of stories
of Primary Care Physicians that refuse to refer kids with allergies to an
allergy specialist, for example. Patients feel like they have to aggressively
advocate their cause because Primary Care Physicians are rewarded for limiting
the number of referrals they make. I don’t know of anyone, patient or
physician, that likes being in an adversarial,Helvetica position. As one writer for the The
New Republic put it months ago, any system that pits the economic interest
of the physician against the medical needs of the patient is doomed to
If you are lucky enough to actually get the service
you need, most of the time you get a letter from your HMO listing a number of
reasons that the care is not covered under your plan. It usually is, but in
order to get the proper payment, you have to make half a dozen phone calls to
the medical group back to the HMO. It is a bureaucracy that makes you long for
the old Soviet Union. You couldn’t make this up.
And then there are the
abject poor that are covered under Medicaid. Their treatment is time intensive,
diminimus, often below what people should have to endure. But it is available
and the costs are borne by the taxpayers. These folks swell the Emergency Rooms
of our teaching hospitals and are the first patients our medical interns and
residents get to treat- often outstanding care as a result of their care.
Finally, there is a class of people you might call
the working poor. They do not qualify for Medicaid and they can only afford
medical insurance for a portion of their life. It is not a perq for their jobs
and budgeting for it requires them to forfeit something else that is dear. A
sizeable portion of this group cannot rely on a steady income and thus
periodically find themselves either uninsured or underinsured. A prolonged or
serious illness would devastate their fragile economies. You know who these
folks are. They clean your house, cut your grass. We buy fruit from them at the
little grocery in Manhattan on the way to the office. They push carts. They
drive limo’s, etc., etc.. Experts who
study this problem are worried that this group is growing too large.
I do not know what the answer to this problem is,
though I spend an increasing amount of my time thinking about it. And that is
not the point this morning. We have an issue on our hands that must be solved
by this generation. In so aspects of our world, we tend to presume that if we
simply allow the logic of the market to run it’s course, a solution to our
situation will eventually emerge that will sort the whole situation out. In
this case, it would seem to me that the logic of our market forces is at odds
with our spiritual and humanitarian impulses. And therefore, the solution to
the problem will be complex and structural. I apologize, to you. I wish I could
wrap this up neatly and I can’t. I can only come back to our text which has a fresh
poignancy in our era. We have friends who are in need of healing. We are going
to have to carry them to where they need to go. And if need be, we may have to
dismantle the roof of the building and lower them down so that they can get the
healing touch that will make them whole.
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