The number one rule of practicing medicine is to do no harm. In a system that gives authority to medical professionals at patients’ most vulnerable moments, we trust that they are acting in our best interests to keep us healthy. It’s an illusion to believe that providers aren’t biased to patients that are unable to pay. We have begun to fanaticize the notion that all patients receive the same quality of care despite the insurance card they carry – or in this case, don’t carry.
Darnell witnessed first-hand the limitations to receiving high-quality care when uninsured. After losing his job in Tucson during the recession, he quickly returned home to Pennsylvania to stay with friends and family while on the job search. Within this period of unemployment, Darnell became uninsured, and was at one of the highest points of stress in his life, triggering severe health consequences.
He admitted himself into the hospital, knowing that something wasn’t right after having constant migraines. After a series of tests, doctors found a bleed in his brain, but because he would be unable to pay for any procedures to stop the bleed, that there was nothing more doctors could do.
“They sent me home the next day. And I said, ‘Why are you sending me home? My brain is still bleeding.’ Because I didn’t have medical coverage, they essentially said, ‘here’s a prescription, good luck.’ By the time I would be able to use that prescription, it would already be too late.”
Less than a week later, Darnell found himself in the emergency room after suffering his first stroke. When the doctors found out he was uninsured, they confirmed what he already knew: his brain was still bleeding, and he had a series of mini-strokes. The diagnosis led to learning Darnell had high blood pressure, likely caused by a combination of genetics and environmental factors. They prescribed him affordable blood pressure medication, but once again, they sent him home without a future treatment or follow-up plan.
“All of this happened because I come to find out that I have high blood pressure. And it could have been avoided with a cheap bottle of pills.”
The first two times he was refused proper medical services resulted in Darnell’s third admittance into the hospital, this time even more serious than the previous two. After suffering a second and ultimately paralyzing stroke, Darnell was rushed to the emergency room for immediate brain surgery. Doctors inserted a shunt to regulate the buildup of spinal fluid, caused by the bleeding in his brain. Darnell would wake up paralyzed, unable to use the left side of his body.
If only this were the end of Darnell’s misery, but alas, the stent soon became infected, leading to a total of nine brain surgeries. Doctors said that he would never walk again, that he was functionally braindead on the right side, and that this would be the end of life as he knew it. To recover as much as possible, he was admitted into a nursing home for daily physical and occupational therapy.
“I left that nursing home with the attitude that I had to push forward.”
With the right attitude, Darnell focused on what he could do, because in his words, “if you focus on what you can do, then there’s nothing you can’t do.” Slowly, he regained the ability to use his arm and leg. Though he still has spasticity within his arm, he is now able to walk unassisted. Coming through the other side of experience has changed his life completely, resulting in him joining political action committees to represent the diverse needs of his neighbors in Erie.
“The decisions we make today drive the future. I have 14 grandkids, and I want to look out for them. Twenty years ago, someone took an envelope of cash, and because of their decision, I’ll never be able to use my arm and leg the same way again.”
For Darnell, it didn’t have to be this way. Lack of access to care in that emergency room cost him more than money could buy – it literally cost him an arm and a leg. Had he been able to access preventative healthcare while he was uninsured, he might have been diagnosed with high blood pressure earlier, and he would have been able to mitigate his risk factors.
With a positive outlook, Darnell worked with an aide and caseworker to qualify for a cost-effective health plan under the Affordable Care Act. He is back on his feet (literally) and has become a community leader for Keystone Progress in Erie. Though he works on several social justice campaigns, universal healthcare has become a vital issue for him, telling me, “Medicaid saved my life, so I’m for Medicare for All.”