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Julia Gorin Headshot

Americans Want Universal Access to Graveyards

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It probably hasn't escaped too many people's notice that the Paraguay baby who was taken home to his parents in a wooden box was hastily pronounced dead by a state-run hospital and state-paid doctor.

That's not to take anything away from our country's private, high-paid deadbeat doctors, who manage to be such without benefit of state-pay incentive. But a nationalized system won't exactly inspire them to be less negligent than they are now. Besides, do you really want to be treated by a doctor who's in a bad mood because he doesn't make enough even to pay off his student loans? The only happy doctors will be the incompetents who get a leg up thanks to an unrewarding socialist system.

I've often been astounded to hear the following sentence from Americans after they've learned that I escaped from the Soviet Union: "But at least everyone had medical coverage there."

Yeah, I tell them, but too bad that most of the hospital beds were six feet under.

And that's what the premature baby casket was about: that wooden box is increasingly what Americans' hospital beds are going to look like if Obamacare answers Bill Maher's prayers for the rest of us. Especially for the most vulnerable: newborns, handicapped and elderly.

The shortages -- in supplies, manpower, patience, money, time -- that come with socialized healthcare will be an even bigger green light to presume you dead or get you dead than seeing the words "organ donor" on your driver's license.

That's what the folks are going "crazy" about at the Town Hall meetings. In the Soviet Union, if a seasoned-looking person came to the ER with a heart attack, he or she would be asked, "How old are you?"

"Sixty-two."

"Sorry, we have more urgent priorities."

In 1988, during the glasnost era, author David Remnick (now editor of The New Yorker) interviewed a Stalin defender named Nina Aleksandrovna, for his book Lenin's Tomb. She told him, "In the past, a person going to bed at night knew that in the morning he'd go to work and have free medical care -- not very skilled care, but...now we don't have even these guarantees."

Not very skilled care, she said. Is this really what you want, America?

Indeed, my own Russia-bound soul was so loath to even be born into the Soviet system, and apparently so terrified of the Soviet birthing experience, that it kept putting off my birth. When my mother arrived at the hospital, I was two weeks late, had stopped moving, and was unresponsive when finally pushed out. In 2005 I described for the Wall St. Journal what a woman's happiest day looked like in socialist Russia. Here is what my mother encountered upon arriving in the hospital:

"Are you in labor?" the admitting nurse asked her.

"No."

"Then why did you come? You like hanging around hospitals, do you?"

"I don't feel anything moving."

"Oh. OK, wait for the doctor."

Fortunately, a younger nurse overheard the conversation. "What -- it's not moving? How long? Since last night? OK, go over there and get undressed."

"I don't hear the baby," said the old doctor on duty. "Is this your first child?"

"No."

"Did the first one live?"

"Yes."

"Good. Because the prognosis here isn't good."

Since there was no labor activity, labor was induced. In Russia this was called "stimulating labor," and it required one to drink castor oil. My mother has its taste on her tongue to this day, she told me. Her body contorted inexplicably, and she became catatonic.

In the background, she could hear yelling at the other birthing women: "Stop screaming!" "You're not the first to give birth; you won't be the last!" "Shut your mouth!"

After some time, Mom's catatonia relaxed and the contractions started. A few hours later I was born, and my mother heard the doctor call to an orderly: "Quick! You with the water -- the baby is in asphyxia!" My mother lay emotionless, able only to hear spanking for what she believed to be nearly half an hour as the doctor tried to revive me. Finally, she heard crying.

The delay causing the doctor's prolonged efforts was probably my in-limbo soul deliberating over whether it was worth taking the risk of only maybe getting to America one day, where life didn't look like this.

Now think of the irony: to have escaped to America from the Soviet Union, only to see the day that Americans actually choose the socialism over which I almost rejected life.

I am forever indebted to that doctor for his voluntary diligence despite the lack of incentive to care. I got lucky. This picture, however, wouldn't be complete without a description of my older sister's birth, as I wrote it for The Journal:

Mom was sent to a room called the rodilka, or "birther," where there were 10 or so women at various stages of dilation. For the night there were one doctor, one nurse, a female orderly and a lot of screaming. (Epidurals for painless labor were unheard of.) At this stage of pregnancy a woman loses control of some bodily functions even after taking preventive measures, so that one woman would be defecating into a pot by her bed while another would be eating dinner in the next bed. Medical students passed by casually observing.

After my elder sister was born and the nurses took her away, Mom began the two-day fluid-expulsion process, which in civilized countries is managed by a changing of the sheets as often as every two hours. Back in the USSR, the new mother would soak in her puddles on a small linen sheet and oil cloth, since patients weren't entitled to more than one or two changes per day. If she wanted an extra change, she'd have to beg and brown-nose the nannychka, as the orderly was addressed by the screaming women. Someone would always yell back: "I just gave you new sheets, and you soiled yourself again!"

Those who were able to bribe the nurse or orderly would get better service, but Mom didn't know and hadn't brought anything. One woman kept giving the nurse fruit so that she'd yell at her less and give her what she needed. Mom could only beg, the whole time feeling as if she'd done something wrong. Granted, the nurse was under an inordinate amount of stress. She was alone responsible for so many, and was running nonstop throughout the night.
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Had my mother been a Party boss's relative, her birthing experiences would have looked a lot more like the common woman's in America. But such was delivery for 99% of the Russian female population.

In America, women often remember abortion as traumatic. My mother barely remembers her two abortions (Russian birth control), but she can't forget a single traumatic detail of her children's births.

If we nationalize medicine, and eventually have our already overworked nurses running as ragged as those in the baby ward where my mother gave birth, how likely is it that they'll continue being able to intercept 86 percent of medication errors before they reach the patients?

Which brings me to my next point. Amid all the clamoring for universal access to doctors, no one has stopped to ask the obvious: Aside from people with acute medical emergencies and life-threatening conditions, why would anyone want to have regular access to a doctor? Just look what happened in Israel when the nationalized doctors went on strike in 1983: the burial association was on the phone to the government, urging it to find a speedy resolution -- because the funeral industry was tanking. A similar phenomenon was observed during a 2000 doctors' strike there.

More deaths per year are caused by medical errors than by guns -- and that's not including deaths caused by correctly prescribed medication. To quote someone else's punch line on this: "Not everyone has a gun, but almost everyone has at least one doctor."

Indeed, a gun didn't manage to kill Andy Warhol when he was shot, but a few years later a hospital did -- after one of those routine-surgeries-gone-bad situations, in this case concerning the gall bladder. Ten years later I had a boyfriend who still couldn't get over how Warhol died, saying, "There he was in a hospital -- without anyone monitoring him to notice the complication. And he just died from neglect -- like a nobody!"

That's because medical staff and hospitals don't care whether you're homeless or you're John Ritter. Or whether you're Michael Jackson, Ariel Sharon, Dennis Quaid's newborn twins, the young actress who played the sister in "Meet the Parents", or ABC sportscaster Dick Schaap, who died from an infection after a routine hip replacement because the medical staff at New York's prestigious Lenox Hill Hospital couldn't be bothered to wash their hands between patients. Like cancer, medical professionals are an equal-opportunity killer.

In the midst of the animated town hall scenes we've been witnessing over the past week, a related controversy popped up when Rush Limbaugh compared the Obamacare logo to an old Nazi symbol. One network taking this on showed a Marine symbol that looked similar, revealing the innocuous nature of the Obamacare logo. Limbaugh would have done better to dissect the symbol of the AMA itself: two intertwining serpents on a staff.

According to a popular comparative study of ancient mythologies, titled Don't Know Much About Mythology, the first known ancient Greek doctor Asclepius "was identified with a single snake. Perhaps because of its ability to shed its skin, it was viewed in ancient times as a sign of immortality. The staff with two snakes, chosen by the American Medical Association as an emblem, is actually the wand of Hermes, called a caduceus, which he used to conduct the dead to Hades."

In other words, the AMA's logo signifies that the medical establishment is just here to, basically, guide patients to the cemetery. Apparently, the industry confused Hermes' rod with Asclepius' rod, just like sometimes they mean to heal you but accidentally kill you.

Ever notice how oftentimes people who have had conditions for years and not known it end up dying within days or weeks of a doctor telling them they have the condition? One example that comes to mind is my friend Chuck, who died in 2007 -- within two weeks of his doctor telling him what it was that, until that point, had been ailing him only slightly. At the roast his friends held for him before he flew off to that great Jewish graveyard of Florida, all of us kept muttering, "If only he hadn't gone to the doctor..."

A few years ago I saw a TV program called "Discovery Health Channel: Medical Mystery" A Nashville doctor had diagnosed a patient with cancer of the esophagus. Surgeons removed what they could find but told the patient it would return, and spread. There were no known survivors of this cancer, and so the doctor told the patient he was "on a short curve," with at most one year left to live. The man died a few weeks later. At the autopsy, the examiner found very little cancer -- a nodule on the liver but none at all on his esophagus. The finding was that he died with some cancer, but not from cancer by any means. The guilt-ridden doctor (unusual in itself, despite what the medical dramas would have us believe) kept asking himself, "Did I remove hope from him in some way?"

I've heard of people following their physician's advice, but this is ridiculous.

Relatedly, according to the Wikipedia entry on Andy Warhol, he had "delayed having his recurring gallbladder problems checked, as he was afraid to enter hospitals and see doctors." By doing so, the man prolonged his life.

On that point, just a few weeks ago, a top Yahoo! item highlighted a teenage girl who had to diagnose herself with her science class microscope because the doctors couldn't recognize Crohn's Disease. This reminded me of the high-powered mom who for five years was trying to get New York's top pediatricians and various specialists and surgeons to tell her what was wrong with her "floppy" son, only to finally figure it out herself with a CD-ROM called "Family Doctor" -- within weeks of her kid's aorta potentially blowing. (It had grown to twice its size, a symptom of the fatal "Marfan's Syndrome," which is five times more common than cystic fibrosis.)

That's why I tell people that they shouldn't go to an M.D. before diagnosing themselves on the internet so they can tell the doctor what they have. This way he or she doesn't have to wait until the autopsy to figure it out. The internet is an invaluable tool for children especially, since a baby becomes more technology-savvy than its parents by the age of four, and so toddlers can instruct their pediatricians accordingly so they don't get sucked into a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-patient.

Don't get me wrong; we know doctors can work miracles. They can bring you back from the dead -- they're just not too sure what to do with the living. So unless you're on the verge of death, stay away from doctors -- or they'll bring you there. (Just ask all the people who had a near-death experience after taking the popular advice to get a preventive colonoscopy or endoscopy.) Thankfully, some doctors are coming out with survival guides for your hospital visit. But maybe they should also start using dogs; in addition to being useful in recovery and rescue operations, dogs can diagnose cancer and sense a heart attack even before it sets on, while the ER will send you home with pills for indigestion.

Speaking of which, one generally gets more answers from a veterinarian than from a people-doctor, which might explain the expression "healthy as a horse." In fact, if a national plan is passed in this country, I'm going to start going to a vet. Not only did vets discover joint supplements decades before people-doctors did (glucosamine and chondroitin), but they actually love animals. Whereas doctors rarely become doctors because they love people.

So imagine the nightmare if we add state-run healthcare to our already semi-competent mix. No imagination needed; just see Britain, Sweden or Canada.

A third cousin of mine named Marina, who lives in Toronto, described her recent national health care experience. She needed knee surgery and in March called the hospital to schedule one. She was given a surgery appointment for the following February. Her knee, of course, didn't know that surgery was on the way and went about trying to heal itself, which then required a longer, more complicated operation in February because of the clean-up job involved. The surgeon told her she was lucky, because not as much stuff grew over the afflicted area as often does during a Canadian patient's waiting period.

Another time, Marina's husband had a bad case of gall stones, and so they went to the ER. They waited seven hours as he was doubled over in pain along with everyone else sitting in the waiting room. After the first few hours of waiting, she went to inquire about when the staff would get to her husband and was asked to sit back down and not interfere with their work. A few hours later, she asked again and was reproached again. When she complained, security was called and she was threatened with removal. At which point she played the only card that a Canadian patient can play: she counter-threatened to call the media. So she was promised some morphine for her husband and they were moved to another area.

This new sitting area was across from the cafeteria, and as they waited an hour or so for the ER doctor to come and administer the morphine, Marina spotted the one doctor who was on duty in the ER...standing in line for lunch.

As always, Americans don't know how good they have it. If you think our healthcare system is broken now, wait 'til you try to fix it. The move to nationalize stems from being spoiled, which leads to a guilt that results in third-world-envy. We should be careful what we wish for.

Deficiencies in our system need to be addressed as we go, on a problem-by-problem basis -- and that's exactly what's been happening. There is no cure-all for the medical establishment or our beefs with insurance companies, and by now we should know that anything that promises to be such can mean only disaster. Indeed, the only reason our healthcare system still functions at all is precisely that we don't have a "system." Rather, we have freedom of choice and a multitude of avenues to explore every time we are frustrated by one of those choices. As soon as you impose a "system", your options disappear.

And that's what has the town hall attendees in a tizzy. Of course, now that politicians and AARP reps have been dressed down by their constituents and members, they'll no doubt feel better about killing these feisty seniors -- and will redouble their efforts to pass Obamacare.