One would have to be flea-brained to deny that if we had no hospitals, millions of us who are now alive would be dead. Then again, only a paramecium’s cerebrum would deny that a lot of us who are now dead would be alive, too.
“Medical errors”—those tragic and costly mistakes, fuckups, flubs, blunders, bloopers, boo-boos, bungles, and botches committed by fleet-fingered physicians and their fist-scrubbing underlings—have killed an estimated one million Americans over the past decade. As staggering as that figure sounds, a recent report suggests that “adverse events” in American hospitals may only be reported in one of every ten cases.
But even if the total were “only” a million—a fearsome tally which the CDC reckons could be reached merely by counting those killed by hospital infections alone—that’s still a few hundred thousand more than the total number of Americans killed by AIDS, drunk drivers, foreign wars, and plain old homicide during the same period—combined. To put it another way, imagine the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11 happening every day for a year—that’s how many people American hospitals and clinics are estimated to have killed since 9/11 happened. The CDC has rated hospital errors as America’s fourth-leading cause of death—trumped only by heart disease, cancer, and strokes.
That’s a whole lotta death.
This month has produced a Petri dish teeming with new stories certain to clench the sphincters of anyone who avoids hospital visits for fear that it might kill them.
The June issue of the Center for Disease Control’s delightful and much-loved Emerging Infectious Diseases journal reports on a Canadian study that found deadly MRSA bacteria on bedbugs plucked from indigent Vancouverites. Although MRSA (pronounced “MER-sa”) doesn’t have nearly the same Q Score as the AIDS virus, it kills more Americans every year than HIV does. And at least two-thirds of MRSA infections are thought to originate in healthcare settings. So should the bedbugs bite, you may wind up scratching yourself and allowing killer bacteria to enter your bloodstream.
Even sans bedbugs, MRSA is hardy enough to live for weeks or even months on common hospital surfaces such as linens and pillows. A recently published British medical study that sampled hospital pillows found them to be virulent vectors of over 30 infectious diseases, including MRSA, E. coli, and even leprosy, which I thought Jerry Lewis cured decades ago. Did you know that one-third of a pillow’s weight can consist of dead skin, living bacteria, dead mites, dead insects, and their excrement? Neither did I—and I doubt it’s one of those things I’ll ever be able to un-know.
Also in June came a report from Consumer Reports Health regarding the ongoing epidemic of central line-associated bloodstream infections in American hospitals’ intensive-care units that kill a quarter of those affected.
And on June 20th, the Washington Post reported on a study by Chicago’s Joint Commission that estimated wrong-site surgeries—you know, where they remove the wrong kidney or ovary or zap the wrong side of your head with radiation and leave you drooling and brain-damaged—occur a disturbing 2,000 or so times every year in America.
What is that Latin pledge that physicians take again? Right—“After killing 100,000 a year first, do no harm.” Although many in the medical community refer to such fatal incidents as never events—because they’re never supposed to happen—they continue to happen seemingly unabated.
This ongoing Hospital Death Wave does not seem deliberate—only a puny minority of these cases involve killer male nurses or killer female nurses—so much as it appears to be a toxic cocktail of soft neglect and tight profit margins. Current federal law does not require hospitals to make public their medical errors, and so, well, hey, they don’t. And nobody raises too much of a stink about it—at least not as much as they do whenever a celebrity calls someone a fag.
After all, it’s not like we’re South Africa, where rats and sewage run through the hospital corridors. Nor are our healthcare facilities nearly as grody as those in India, where ants eat out old ladies’ eyeballs as they recuperate from eye surgery.
The situation here is far more of a technologically advanced, self-sustaining, Death Star-sized clusterfuck than such bush league Third World medical environments—it’s a repellently entangled Gordian Knot of lawyers and doctors and hospitals and insurance companies and medical manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies and government officials—all of them sucking, fucking, jacking one another off, and stabbing each other’s backs to satisfy their personal bottom line. It doesn’t matter if they dance over 100,000 skulls to do it—there’s another 100,000 where that came from. They appear to be getting away with it because, well, they can.
Honesty would be too costly. Honestly reporting even one honest mistake could permanently ruin a medical career. It’s not worth the lawsuits; better to force them to prove their case than to hang yourself with your own words. A 2002 New England Journal of Medicine study revealed that only 14 percent of physicians favored making hospital errors public, whereas 63 percent of the public supported the idea.
Obviously, Big Medicine and the Little Public have different interests at stake here. And as usual, Big Government has no one’s interests in mind but its own.
As the saying goes, I have some “skin in the game” here, too. I first heard of MRSA in 2008 after my sister-in-law had a melon ball’s worth of flesh scooped out of her back to prevent the killer bacteria from spreading. Her friends had dropped off their 12-year-old daughter for babysitting and, knowing it was MRSA, told her that the pus-oozing sore was actually a spider bite. She cleaned off the “spider bite” and wound up in ICU about a week later. Since she was uninsured, the whole episode cost her $100K, a couple of “friends,” and a melon ball’s worth of flesh.
A friend of mine contracted MRSA in 2008 after a brief hospital stay. They took one barefoot shower in their private hospital room, and a week later they had boilingly painful open sores under one foot that only subsided after a month of unceasing pain and three-times-daily medication.
That same year, I spent eight days being shuffled around between three Atlanta-area hospitals, a dozen or so doctors, and countless more germ-coated hospital scrubs—eight days during which my skull was sawed open, my veins stabbed with IV drips, my dick catheterized, my throat intubated, and various medications pumped into my every hole, vein, pore, and artery. As far as I know, I did not acquire any fatal infections during that stay, and I’m a little scared to get tested.
But during a follow-up visit, the nurse at check-in insisted that my name was actually John Goad and that I was four years older than I am. Turns out there was another patient by that name and age at the same hospital. It took a solid fifteen minutes’ worth of convincing her through words, personal identification, and increasingly theatrical sign language that I was who I said I was. If there had been one small oversight on her part, I could have received the wrong pills—or the wrong surgery—and died.
Would it be rude to suggest that some of the money spent on foreign wars and banker bailouts would be put to better use on a couple hundred million scrub brushes, buckets, disinfectant bottles, and a few thousand workers who are at least literate enough to know the difference between “John” and “Jim”?
Until the Powers That Be sort it all out—which will be “never”—it’s wise to take some personal precautions:
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