(Iâ€™ve kept this story anonymous, but my friend gave permission for the below account.)
We have a close family friend whose mother was recently hospitalized. Our friend talked with her mom many times by phone every day, but decided to wait a few days to actually fly in. She doesnâ€™t have the money or the vacation time to constantly fly back-and-forth. She took the calculated risk of waiting because she wanted to be present at discharge to help her mom move into a rehabilitation facility, which the doctors believed was the best option.
But her mom took an unexpected and drastic turn for the worse three nights ago. Our friend jumped on a 6am flight Wednesday, but her mom passed away before the plane landed. She never got to say goodbye to her mom, whom she deeply loved.
There is no villain in the above story of human tragedy. It’s the next part that really makes me sick.
Our friend took a cab straight to the hospital. She wanted to find out what she needed to do, and she had arranged to meet another loved-one, delayed but en route. When our friend arrived at the hospital, the staff simply deposited her in her motherâ€™s hospital room. There, on the bed was her momâ€™s body, sealed in a zippered bag.
Thatâ€™s right. Hospital staff left our friend in that macabre scene all alone, with no one offering her any consolation or checking on her in any way for more than two hours. She sat there in anguish and regret, calling me and others on her cellphone to secure whatever long-distance emotional support she could find, on possibly the worst day of her life.
Iâ€™m sure staff shortages and other challenges played some role in this episode. That explanation is no excuse. People die regularly in hospitals. Loved-ones regularly grieve when this happens. The grittiest and most low-tech facility can respond humanely, can establish sensible procedures to ensure that no one is left to grieve alone when they need human contact. Thatâ€™s elemental.
We typically rank hospitals based on their technical proficiency. (This public hospital seems average on various national indices.) Failures in the cardiac cath lab are measured and harshly noted. Failures of human proficiency and simple unkindness receive less systematic attention.
We spend more than $3 trillion on health care. Yet we still fail to treat many people decently in their most agonizing and tragic moments. We can do better.