The Best Health Care in the World

Rush Limbaugh says that he experienced the world's best health care in the United States of America, and it does not need fixing.  I am glad for Rush that he was staying at a resort near a world class hospital for coronary care last month.  I imagine he has insurance to pay for the hotel-like accommodations, the angiogram and several other tests that failed to find the cause of his chest pains.

Given his public platform and his wide influence on American opinion and public policy, I wish Rush would expand his experience of health care in the United States of America.  He could shadow Craig Rennebohm for a few days to find out how health care works for other people.  Craig is the pastor of Pilgrim Church (UCC) in Seattle and, as part of their ministry, "companions" persons who are homeless and mentally ill.  With David Paul, Craig describes their quite different experiences in Souls in the Hands of a Tender God: Stories of the Search for Home and Healing on the Streets.

The emergency personnel got Rush to the emergency room like that [snap!That's not what happened to Sterling.  Over months Craig built the trust of this man who camped in the church courtyard, surrounding himself with trash to protect himself from the evil spirits.  Finally, when the trash included highly combustible materials, Craig convinced him to go to the hospital.  Winter was coming.  The mental health professionals (MHPs) who showed up said they couldn't take Sterling in, because he was a voluntary patient.  They only picked up involuntary patients.  Sterling accused Craig of betraying him and fled the scene.  Craig couldn't find him until a month later, when he read of a homeless John Doe who died of exposure.

Rush was examined for days after they already knew he was not having a heart attack.  That's not what happened to Shelly, seven months pregnant, with bronchitis and in a state of euphoria and grandiosity.  Craig brought her to the ER.  But she wasn't a "good faith" voluntary patient.  They believed she would check herself out so she could go "accomplish her mission."  She didn't qualify for involuntary admission, because she wasn't a danger to herself or others.  What about her baby?  What about her bronchitis?  "Bring her back when she develops pneumonia."

Karl's story is the clearest example of how health care in the United States of America is not working just fine.  Karl is a vet.  He was arrested for resisting arrest for vagrancy.  He just remembers being attacked, and later that the people in prison were poisoning him.  He was transferred to the hospital for two years, then back to jail to be released, no money, no meds, nothing but the clothes on his back.

Craig had been alerted.  He was a total stranger when he met Karl at the jail that morning and took him to breakfast.  Karl was stymied by the question, "White or whole wheat?"  They continued to a clinic, where Karl couldn't understand or fill out the two-page form.  Since he wasn't in immediate danger, they sent him to the Department of Social and Health Services to apply for SSI.  Craig helped him with the six-page form there.  The social worker discovered he once received benefits.  So he had to get a statement from Social Security.  Social Security noticed he was receiving veterans benefits.  Next stop, the Veteran's Administration.  But the counselor there said they were a PTSD program and didn't take walk-ins.  He sent them a mile away to the Federal Building.  His file was in another state, so they had to get it transferred.  Meanwhile, the file was on computer, and said he was getting 50 cents a month, which was going to the hospital. (They could look up the information, but couldn't give him a copy until the file was received in a few days.)  Craig said, "He's homeless and needs medication right now."  So he was sent to the VA hospital, then to the outpatient clinic in the bowels of the hospital.  Several kind strangers helped Craig find the way.  To get help at the outpatient clinic, Karl had to be admitted through ER, where they determined his illness was not service-related.  The waiting list for outpatient treatment was six months, and he might not get in, because he had been hospitalized only once.  The social worker suggested they try the clinic where they had started the day.  By now it was 6:30 and the clinic was closed.  They covered miles that day.  Karl spent the night in a homeless shelter, still not able to remember Craig's name.

That's where I will end the saga, though it is still several days from completion.  Small wonder that 83% of psychiatrists want a national health insurance plan, a higher proportion than any other specialty.  So many of their patients are homeless.

And I thought I was having a hard time.  I have boatloads of people to help, support and advocate for me.  My salary is continued while I fill out applications.  I have a roof over my head and continued health insurance.  Most of all I have Helen, who asked me all the repetitive questions over several days, monitored my capacity, and terminated the work each day, usually after twenty minutes when I was getting overwhelmed.  My phone has been set to mute the disability company whose questions put me over the edge.  She screens my messages.  This process turned me into a pill-popping wreck last fall, and though my memory is not what it used to be, I do know my helper's name.

Rush, the system works well for you.  But not for the rest of us who live in the United States of America.

I commend to your reading Souls in the Hands of a Tender God by Craig Rennebohm with David Paul.  Craig uses his stories to help us see the face of Christ in these abandoned ones, and to frame his theology of God and what it means to be a human being in the sight of God.  We cannot make the journey alone.  None of us.  We are made for life together, made for community.  Those of us blessed with health and wealth may be tempted to forget that.  We may want to believe that we are self-made and assume that we have succeeded through our individual merits alone...  Illness - and especially mental illness - confronts us with the unavoidable truth of our frailty and finitude.  Illness underscores our fundamental dependence on the love and help of others...

Craig describes the work that his community is doing, "companioning" people who are mentally ill.  Companionship can be described in terms of four practices: offering hospitality, walking side by side, listening, and accompaniment.  Let's consider these in detail...

And he tells the astounding story of a very different kind of system in Geel, Belgium.  I will tell you about the miracle of Geel next week.  There is a different way to do this.

The image is from


  1. Working on a psych unit we see many homeless people return because they fail to get support outside the hospital. They are then accused of lieing to get a bed. Which may be true or not but the discharge system to supports has failed. Compassion for these people who fear the harsh unsheltered, unsupported world is the only brief vacation I have to offer them as a nurse.

  2. Thank you, Mark, for being a blessing to them.


Popular Posts