A simple toothache can be fatal.
That is the sobering message a 12-year-old Maryland boy left when, after his dental problems went untreated, he succumbed to a severe brain infection.
Deamonte Driver's life could have been spared if his infected tooth was simply removed -- a procedure costing just $80.
However, the Driver family faced obstacles with Medicaid, poverty, and access to resources, resulting in an easily preventable health problem turning deadly.
Source: Toothache Leads to Boy's Death at abcnews.com
I think by now we've all heard this tragic story.
We're all saddened, perplexed, and outraged. At least, I hope we all are. This is a devastating and completely avoidable tragedy. We should feel grief, and outrage.
And, as usual, the first people to step up and loudly start talking about reform are...politicians.
And, as usual, we are all looking to the politicians to fix the problem. Through legislation.
As if we are tittle tattlers in kindergarten running to the teacher to right a wrong.
ETC: I don't mean our elected officials and public services should get off scot-free. Not by a long-shot. I am simply saying we can't rely on that as the sole source. Let's step up the plate as individuals to augment public efforts.
I say we need to grow up, folks. Grow up and take this reponsibility on ourselves. I say individuals need to step up to the plate. I say we can. We should. We must.
Whenever we talk about underserved, uninsured people who need medical care, I think we mainly consider medical doctors for general health. We don't usually consider aspects of health that even health insurance providers consider "optional" such as eyes and teeth.
This is because our health care is treatment centered to support a profit-based bottom line, rather than preventive centered, which, I theorize, would even better support a profit-based bottom line, but that's another post.
This post is actually investigative in nature, and a call to action in moral.
When I worked at a law firm as a legislative researcher, every single lawyer at the firm volunteered at a legal aid society, donating a couple or so evenings a month of free legal service to the poor who needed, but couldn't afford, legal assistance. This isn't the same as a public defense; this was contract review, advice, etc. Mostly civil. Absolutely essential. Regularly, the service provided a sort of open cattle call---first come, first served---and otherwise offered scheduled appointments and follow-up assistance. One had to qualify, of course.
I asked the lawyers about this service and their experience. They shook their heads and despaired at times; too much need, never enough people or time. They told me about people near ruin, and about people who were just a little confused. They told me how rewarding it was---how glad they were to be able to take their skill and help people who needed it, but couldn't otherwise afford to get the help needed.
Lawyers have a bad rap. Greedy, self-serving, rejected in countless jokes at Heaven's Gate. And yet...there is legal aid.
So...where is dental aid, and optical aid?
Initial search results were pretty empty. I found some great programs...abroad.
Domestic programs were a challenge. I did find a model in the Boulder, Colorado area that looked successful and great. It even looks like it provides mobile care.
Locally, I found that a dental society teamed up with a hospital one day in April in 2005 to provide free oral health care to people. I wasn't able to find any services beyond that date. They did advertise extensively in certain areas, primarily through schools.
I tried to reach the professional dental society to see if they could direct me to any sort of dental aid locally---such as the lawyers provided---but wasn't able to reach an actual person.
(UPDATE: Reached a person. There is no effort to provide free or affordable dental care, no organized dental aid in my area. And the nearby city? Seriously...lots of need. Lots of poverty. One of the wards here is infamous for poverty. Immortalized in movies and literature many times over.)
I checked with my local emergency room. The doctors are able to identify an infected tooth, but are not set up to investigate the extent of the infection. SOP is to prescribe antibiotics and refer the patient to a dentist.
I also called several local dentists. None accepted Medicare. Only one office in this area does (that I could find). It could be quite a hike for some. I estimated about half an hour drive from where I live. I estimated about 45 minutes from one housing project nearby that houses a number of scioeconomically poor people who would need the service of this dentist. And believe it or not, despite the fact that there is no public transportation here, not every resident owns a car.
I know these real people, people without cars, without health insurance, only limited Medicare and little to no budget. I had heard stories, I had vaguely understood the difficulty...but until I walked a mile in their shoes...well...
You don't even want to know how long I spent trying to research low cost or free oral health care service options. Most people were sort of regretful, some were nice, everybody had some place else to send me for help, but ultimately, nobody I spoke to was able to directly, concretely help me.
Go ahead...try it. Try to find oral, optical, or even general health care near you. Imagine away your car and your health insurance. Imagine up a health situation. Imagine you have no disposable income at all. How successful are you at finding care you can afford and can access?
I know how sometimes health care is under the table, so to speak. I know how sometimes people unofficially help people. I know professionals who rate and rank "free" clinics (unofficially) and who direct Medicare people they know to this place rather than that place. I know how people find out the free times (and yes, there are times, two hour windows of opportunity that are not advertised...you just have to be in the world and know) at clinics. I know people who volunteer as chauffeurs.
Why is it so damn hard to find and get necessary health care?
In discussion at Sage's blog a little while back, she and a couple of other bloggers gently pointed out my pomposity and arrogance in assuming that Everyone Has Access to Choices in Health Care.
I know better. I just got submerged in my own personal situation and how I go about things.
We forget, we do.
We forget how it really is to not be able to live like we do. Or maybe we never really knew, or know.
I'm not sure---despite my occasional immersion in it---that I can even say I really know. I was able, after all, to say, after each call trying to find care for my imagined persona (based on a real person), "Wow, thank God this isn't really me, my real life."
No, I was able to say, well, the almost $2000 my family has had to pay for quality, accessible dental care recently (note the ommision of the word affordable---$2000 is killing us, and half was charged so now we have debt to pay off) is a serious pain point, but oy...at least we could somehow.
I did question the $80 to pull a tooth. What is that...ten minutes with the dentist, no pain meds or anesthesia, no x-rays...just dentist hand in mouth with pliers and yank?
I wonder because when my daughter had a tooth pulled just a few months ago it was (and I shit you not) FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS and some change. Now, she got what I call the Royal Oral Princess treatment and an ice cream cone after.
So, what does $80 get you?
I know dentists have costs. I know they have liability. I know things aren't always fair or equal.
What I don't know is WHY every single solitary dentist can't offer one day a month, one day a quarter, half a day a quarter...something...anything of free oral health care for the people who can't afford it otherwise.
If we swung around, and got in front of dental disease (and any other health care issues--this is an open call not exclusive to dentists) and prevented problems, then I bet nobody needs to spend (or have it cost the dentist) eighty or five hundred dollars to treat a problem.
Go to schools. Do it at the schools. Do it at your office. Do it at some civic building.
Just. Go. Do. It.
Don't make me invoke the name of Jesus Christ. I will, bet it, I will.
I don't want mealy-mouthed excuses. They are all selfish. That's right. Selfish.
If you have some good reasons, something not self-serving, hand it over. Let's look at it. We can be smart, and creative. I bet we can find a way around it.
I bet Crest and Colgate will be glad to pony up sample toothbrushes and toothpaste for free.
Take my challenges.
Try to find health care with no insurance or money. See what it feels like, just a little. Call your usual health care providers and listen to their friendly, chipper tone turn frosty as you plead need, but no insurance, or money. Compare and contrast this to the usual service you get.
Health care professionals...get regular, free, health care clinics going. Not just in the inner city, but everywhere it might be needed. Volunteer. Offer it free. Get donations. Get free products from companies.
(Listen, I have done four fundraisers this year. You'd be surprised how easy begging gets to be, and how lucrative it can be. You'd be surprised how many people want to help and just don't know where, when or how. They have products or services, and just need an avenue. An avenue beyond passive activism such a national praying or forwarding emails or clicking buttons on web sites.)
Extend my challenges. Challenge health care providers to donate services.
Don't just let this story become a headline that slowly slides off the front page and out of our minds.
This is also the face of the uninsured, the uncared for in the country. This is a face we must never, ever forget. It's the face that needs to motivate us to give aid. It's the face that should guide us as we vote. It's the face that should guide us as we find ways to give.
copyright 2007 Julie Pippert