Why Emergency Rooms Drive Away Families with Cadillac Plans

29 Sep
Hospital Road SignMy fourteen year old stepson has a 103 degree temperature.  The glands on either side of his neck have risen up hard like two rods with infection.  His breathing is shallow, his cough deep.  He looks at me with his big brown eyes for answers.  He’s looking at me for relief.

I make an appointment and take him to our general physician.  We live in Lake Arrowhead, a resort community in the San Bernardino Mountains that has a hospital so small and ill-equipped that any critical patient is immediately airlifted by helicopter.

After careful examination and a chest x-ray, my son is diagnosed with pneumonia.  It’s recommended he be hospitalized and fed oxygen through a tube.  My husband and I decide to take him to the flat lands, to Loma Linda Medical Center, the best hospital in the area. But we need to take him to their emergency room otherwise our medical insurance won’t pick up the tab.

The emergency room has people spilling out the front, loitering by the parked ambulances. The soda and candy machines are out here, as well as a couple of benches next to a security guard’s station.  A man and woman stand near a trash receptacle sharing a cigarette.

Upon entering the emergency room my stepson is given a mask to tie around his mouth and nose.  A Hispanic teenager in pajamas and a Dodgers baseball cap is hunched over in a wheelchair rocking with pain, an IV drip sticking out from the top of his hand. I wonder why he’s back in the emergency room after he’s obviously already been seen.  On a bench in the corner a middle-aged Asian woman extends her left leg bandaged in a bath towel, seeping darker with fresh blood.  It’s as if she no longer seems to notice.  Her face is drained, pale and strangely peaceful like she has reconciled to slowly bleeding to death.

With my stepson’s hot forehead against my shoulder, I tell him to close his eyes and we sit, along with my husband, and we wait.  We wait for more than seven hours while elderly patients who already have the benefit of extra oxygen easily wheel their tanks and are quickly admitted.

Kids still in primary school sniffle, sometimes skip, past the same nurse that continues to call their names, all of whom have arrived with their parents well after us.  None of them appear as sick as my child. I’m frightened for my stepson.  I want him feeling better.  I rise from my seat and complain yet again to the frenzied hospital worker who’s on the phone behind the admitting desk.

“Listen,” the worker says, putting the person he’s speaking with on hold.  He points the receiver at me.  “You have to understand something.  We don’t go by who came in before who or who’s sickest.”  He explains that typically patients younger than seven and older than sixty-five are seen first regardless of the severity of illness or injury.

At fourteen my stepson is in the same lingering predicament as the Hispanic boy suffering in the wheelchair, as the Asian lady losing blood on the bench.

Emergency rooms, I quickly learn, are run by a different kind of discrimination.  My best friend’s father experienced a second stroke hours after he’d arrived in the emergency room waiting area seeking treatment for the first stroke he’d had at home. The list of the ignored and the ill goes on and on.  Recently in the news I saw that a man dropped dead in a local emergency room begging for treatment.

Cadillac plans like ours as well as Medi-Cal and Medicare don’t take precedent over those with no health insurance.  If you’re in dire need of care, you get it.  That’s one of the privileges of living in the United States.  But too many times these clear cut rules are dangerously broken by hospital staff as well as prospective patients.

The worker behind the desk, not unsympathetically, advises me the next time to call 911 for an ambulance.  Although far more expensive, at least my son would be instantly escorted through those double doors.  So we drive home, this family with their so-called Cadillac plan without our son ever being seen by emergency room staff.  That night, my husband and I take turns watching his labored sleep.  We hear how hard his chest is working to breathe, prepared with a cordless telephone at our side to do the only thing we can do should it stop.


Leave a Reply


  1. Josefina

    October 3, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    My mother had a heart attack, we took her to the ER and waited all night. She looked too good I guess because other peple got there later and got to go in before her. She could’ve died.

    • Paula

      October 7, 2010 at 1:11 pm

      I’m sorry to hear that. Luckily she didn’t. I’ve heard all kinds of terrible stories about emergency rooms as I’m sure you have. A student in one of my classes was telling me about how her husband lost part of his finger because he was told to have a seat (with part of his severed finger in his hand). Too much time lapsed and it could no longer be stitched back on.

  2. Wayne D.

    October 21, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    Great post! You should definitely follow up on this important topic about the problems with emergency rooms:D