The Health Care Crisis Comes to Town, Big Time

I was going to write about something darkly funny this time, but something has come up this week, and I feel the need to vent. It involves the near total collapse of our nations health care system. Sooner or later, it’s going to hit you where you live. I know, because that’s exactly what happened to me, here in Waltham, Massachusetts, this past week. I mean this literally. It has, quite simply, hit us Waltham residents like a scud missile. (And no, that’s not a reference to the urban myth about an Iraqi scud missile hitting the city of Lowell during the gulf war, and causing ten million dollars worth of improvements.)

First, let me explain that in my first forty-five years here, I have been blessed with good health. I’ve been getting annual physical checkups since I turned forty, and everything checks out ok. I’ve had a few minor problems though, such as suffering a “small ligament tear” during the height of bicycling season, two years ago, the occasional bout of winter time colds and flu. Big deal. So, what’s my problem, when there are so many with serious health issues? It’s this: The well-respected, much loved Deaconess-Waltham Hospital is going to close. Yes indeed, another local hospital, with a lot of patients who depend on it for their health care, is going to be shut down, by its parent corporation, Caregroup Health Systems.

Some brief history is in order. The Deaconess-Waltham Hospital was founded officially in 1885. For most of its existence, it was simply known as “The Waltham Hospital”. This hospital is small, by modern hospital standards. It has 108 beds. But it boasts all the modern equipment and facilities that are commonly associated with huge hospitals, such as the behemoth Mass General. It has a state-of-the-art emergency room, which treats an average of 20,000 people annually. This emergency room is famous for it’s ability to see patients quickly, even when it gets swamped. I know this firsthand, as I have been treated there twice, once after a minor cycling accident ten years ago, (a woman with an obviously low I.Q. “doored” me) and once when a nasty flu virus caused me to faint on the floor at my job. The caring attitude and quality of care I received on both occasions makes me think that maybe these doctors and nurses and medical technicians should be wearing halo’s instead of green scrubs. My sister had her appendix removed there, and other family members have been treated there for a variety of oddities. So much for history. If you ask residents of the Waltham area, you’ll find plenty of tales, very similar to mine. Oh yes, 1200 people are employed there, making the Deaconess-Waltham hospital the city’s largest employer.

This community hospital has survived for more than one hundred years. It has sat there, on a hilltop, and seen two world wars, a great depression, and has been the place where generations of people have been born and have died. But, it cannot survive the “mismanaged health care” system that now exists. My question, simply, is why? How can this possibly be? At what point in time did our hospital system come under the control of bean counters, when it should be in the control of doctors and skilled hospital administrators? Something stinks, sort of like the Fleet Center Men’s room, after a big Bruins playoff game.

I live a short distance away from Deaconess-Waltham, on a road which is frequently used by the ambulance services to rescue people who have been in motor vehicle accidents on busy route 128. The ambulances go back and fourth, several times per evening, more frequently during holiday weekends in summer. I am wondering what will happen, when they no longer have the emergency room at Deaconess-Waltham. The next nearest facility is Newton-Wellesley, five miles distant. The staff, which runs that department, has already stated that on some occasions, they may not be able to handle the additional load. What’s next? The big hospitals in Boston are there, a half-hour distant by ambulance. Give additional time if the roads are snow-clogged, or it it’s “rush hour”, and there has been some sort of traffic anomaly which results in gridlock. That time could mean a lot, if someone is having a serious coronary arrest, or a bad diabetic episode.

And yes, they have big-city emergency departments, which frequently must “shut down”, and admit no more patients, because they get too overloaded. (And quality of care does indeed suffer, but that is something I cannot address here.)

So, what happens now? State law requires that ninety days of notice be given to the state health board, prior to closure. This has been done. A public hearing must also be held. It has been scheduled for February 11th, at 6 PM, at Waltham High School. I imagine that at that meeting, there will be a lot of grandstanding by local politicians. (There has been a lot of that already) But, I suspect that this is probably “it”. One must ponder what else is going to happen, and what has already happened. Doctor Alan Woodward, President of the medical staff of Emerson Hospital in Concord, told the Boston Globe that since he started practicing medicine in 1981, he has seen 40 community hospitals such as Deaconess-Waltham shut down. This is something that makes me feel that there is some sort of insidious, long-term plan at work. Paranoid? Crazy? Tell it to the parents of an eleven-year-old, who needs emergency room treatment and an overnight hospital stay because of a diabetic problem. Tell it to a police officer that has been stabbed while trying to break up a Friday night fight between two drunken white trashers. Tell it to a teenaged girl who was making progress with an eating disorder, but now must start all over with a new doctor, at a different hospital, because Deaconess-Waltham is being forced to close.

I think that when I am bicycling around town, I’ll take extra care to try not to get “doored”. (For those not aware, that’s when some careless person opens their car door, without checking for approaching cyclists. Arguably, one of the worst kinds of accidents which can befall a bike rider, especially since there is no defense for it.)

Watch your health.

Bruce Black

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