There is a debate in this country about whether health care is a right or a privilege. Those on the “right” side point to universal health care policies in most of the world’s industrialized countries as an indication that this is widely viewed as a component of a “civilized” society. Those on the “privilege” side point to the cost associated with universal health care and the potential for fraud and abuse by unscrupulous individuals.
My mother told me this story that happened when I was two years old. She awakened one night in response to a “voice” that told her to “go check on the children.” She tried to go back to sleep but the voice was insistent, so she obeyed. She checked my sister first who was sleeping soundly. When she checked me she found me lying on my back staring into space. She called my name and I did not respond. She picked me up and I vomited over her shoulder and began trembling violently. She ran back to her bedroom with me in her arms,
“Jack! Jack! Something is wrong with William.”
My father woke up still somewhat dazed,
My mother had grabbed the phone and dialed our family doctor.
“Dr. Wittus, This is Marie. Something is wrong with William!”
“Now Mary, I was just by there today and your boy looked fine.”
Dr. Wittus! This is Ma-rie Greer!”
Oh! Marie. Hold on, I’m on my way!”
My mother got out of bed still clutching me in her arms and headed toward the door.
“You better put some clothes on.” My father suggested.
My mother dressed hastily. When the doctor arrived, he examined me briefly and said,
“We’ve got to get this child to the hospital.”
My mother, who had been in the process of nursing my sister, handed her to my father, grabbed me and flew out the door with Dr. Wittus in tow.
Enroute to the hospital, Dr. Wittus ignored the speed limit. My mother hovered over my limp body searching for signs I had revived. At one point, she turned a terrified face to the doctor and said,
“Oh-h Dr. Wittus, he stopped breathing!”
“Poke him in the stomach!”
My mother poked me tentatively, once, twice—nothing.
Dr. Wittus took one hand off the wheel and punched me in the stomach. A great “whoosh’ of air exited my lungs and I began to breathe visibly.
When they entered the E.R., Dr. Wittus was carrying me with my mother running behind. He began barking orders as soon as he hit the door. The place became a hive of activity. They started an I.V. The doctor said to the nurse doing the procedure,
“If you hit the vein the first time, I’ll give you a silver dollar.”
My mother was not amused.
They wheeled me away to do the things that health care professionals do in private.
Some time later, Dr. Wittus came back to tell my mother that he had consulted a specialist (“One of the best “) and they were doing everything possible to diagnose and treat me.
Later they brought me back to a hospital room still unconscious. Dr. Wittus said the next few hours would be dicey but if I made it through the night I should be okay. My mother spent the night lying on my bed with her cheek close enough to feel each breath that I took.
The next morning, I was recovered. My mother tested my small vocabulary and my more expansive repertoire of sight games and verified, to her satisfaction, that I was cognitively in tact. My nurse came into the room to do an examination. During the exam she said,
“You know little fellow, if I didn’t know better, I would say that you had a heart attack.”
I have no memory of this incident. I know this story this intimately because my mother told it to me and others repeatedly throughout my childhood and adult years.
Three things strike me about it now. First, this happened in rural Tennessee circa 1950. Second, Dr. Wittus was a white man and I was a black child. And third, my family was uninsured.