Treating The Sick Amid An Ailing Economy
GRAND RAPIDS, MI--Rick Tormala wore penny loafers with the pale blue pants the hospital had given him that morning.
The shoes hinted at where his life had been just a year and a half ago and the scrubs told of where it was now.
Tormala had been a Grand Rapids City Commissioner with a resume that included a string of important titles: mayoral candidate, a senator’s aide and an investigator for the public defender’s office. It had been his job to help the vulnerable.
When we met him, Tormala was sick, underemployed and uninsured, shuffling at a pained pace through the waiting room of a free clinic. Nearby, counters were topped with free loaves of bread for the hungry and adult diapers for the incontinent. He was the vulnerable.
“I didn't imagine I'd ever be without health care,” Tormala said when I knelt down next to him in the waiting room and asked why he was there. He said that even when he lost his insurance in 2008, “I always thought I’d pick up another job, with health care.”
But he didn’t. Despite his resume, he was a 55-year-old man looking for a job during a recession in one of the hardest-hit areas of the nation. He couldn’t find anything full time, he said. So, he settled on two part-time positions: one with a company that sells computer ink and toner supplies and another as a host of his own show on a public radio station.
But he said even when he talks about health-care issues on the show, called "Tuesdays with Tormala," he never mentions his own situation. He never tells people how he and his wife went from making $130,000 to $20,000 a year, never describes how how he hadn't seen a doctor since 2007 before coming to the clinic a few months ago.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do is put myself through this,” the father of three said of walking to the back of the red-brick church and through the blue doors into Catherine’s Care Center. “It’s much easier to be a helper than it is to be helped.”
Michael and I hadn’t planned on meeting Tormala. We were spending the evening at the clinic -- taking in the rhythms of a place crammed into the 1,200 square feet beneath the church -- when Tomala came in. He was there to see Dr. John Walen, whom he had first met in April when his blood pressure spiked to 194 over 124. Further tests revealed that Tomala had kidney problems.
On the night we met him, he had just been released from the hospital with a catheter. He wore the hospital scrubs because they were loose enough to hide the bag attached to his leg.
“You can argue what type of national health care plan is needed -- that’s a legitimate debate,” Tormala said. But, he added, some plan is needed. “I was very close to not coming here, and if I hadn’t, I would have probably stroked out somewhere and my family would be burying me.”
The clinic sits in a walkable neighborhood of tidy streets lined with a mix of stores and single-family homes. Walen, who is the medical director there, said the clinic formerly saw mainly the chronically poor, but now serves more people who are “acutely poor,” or “acutely uninsured.” They are seeing people who used to have comfortable houses and might have them again, but for now live with their parents. These are people who once dressed up for work and now spend their days sending out job applications. These are people who once had sick leave and now can't afford to get sick.
Walen has a patient who was bitten on the hand by a cat and let it get infected to the point that it now needs to be surgically drained. But the man refuses to go to the hospital because he’s afraid if he’s admitted and loses time at work, he’ll no longer have a job.
“Every day,” said clinic director Karen Kaashoek, “every day a person comes in that door that has a story.”
The clinic, funded mostly through grants and private donations, turns away 200 people a month because there’s no space to treat them, she said. By next summer, the clinic expects to move into an old school house, which would allow them to treat 15,000 patients a year, a big boost over the current 4,800, But first, they need to raise $1.3 million. None of the stimulus money went to free clinics, she added.
“People have said, ‘Now, with health care reform, you all can close, right?’” she said. “But no matter what health care looks like, it’s not going to happen tomorrow. And in the meantime, things keep deteriorating.”
If someone loses a job and sees a car repossessed as a result, she said, that person will eventually find another job and be able to buy another car. “But if you lose your insurance and you’re a diabetic and you stop taking your medicine, you go blind or you lose a leg," Kaashoek said. "Those things don’t come back.”
Nate DuVall, who dropped from 205 pounds to 147 pounds in about a year and a half, said he didn’t tell anyone how sick he felt because he didn’t want to be a financial burden on anyone in his family. Two weeks ago, when the 22-year-old’s mother finally convinced him to go to the clinic, he learned that he had Type 1 diabetes and was on the verge of falling into a diabetic coma.
“You wouldn’t know it by looking at me now, but I was pretty big and strong,” he said. “I was a tough guy.”
He wasn’t sure of his height, but he had an inch or two on Michael who is taller than six feet. The three of us were talking in the exam room when Dr. Johnny Walker walked in. He is a retired emergency room doctor who was married in the church above the clinic and who baptized his children there.
“Hey stranger,” he said. “How much did you gain?”
“She said I’m about the same – 154.”
Both looked disappointed.
“How’s your blood sugar?”
“Lower, but not good," Duval said. "But I think that’s mostly my fault.”
How badly did he really feel before his treatment began? I asked.
“A dead horse,” Nate said. “That’s how I felt.”
“He looked like he’d been in a concentration camp,” the doctor said. “He was a sick boy,”
Nate said his decision to go to college and study environmental science came after he filled out more than 100 job applications and received no offers. Now, he’s hoping to find a part-time job while he works on his degree.
“They definitely saved me a lot of money and a lot of hardship,” Nate said of the clinic, clutching a bag of free insulin. “Eventually, I would have keeled over and they would have had to ER me, and then you’re talking what kind of bills.”
It was after 7 p.m. when the clinic closed. Michael and I drove downtown, cruising through mostly quiet streets when we came to a plaza where more than a hundred people had gathered. Each carried a small white candle. We found out that it was a health-care vigil, one of hundreds organized across the nation by MoveOn.org in opposition to conservatives rallying against President Obama's health-care reform plan.
While the majority of the crowd clustered in the middle of the plaza, watching the stage and waving signs, a homeless man named Tim Ehlert stood alone in the back, clutching his candle in the same hand as a plastic trash bag. Inside it were a few empty cans, and when I asked him about them, he said he was collecting the cans to pay for his prescriptions. He has 13 medications and each costs him $1, he said, listing off drug names used to treat his bi-polar disorder, chronic pain and high blood pressure. “I’m stuck,” said the 48-year-old. “The doctor said I’m disabled enough not to work, but yet the federal government says I’m not disabled enough to get disability.”
Barbara Ritter, 58, had come with her son, Steven, 26, who has no insurance and has gone to the free clinics. “I’ve been one of those people sitting on the sidelines,” she said. “Tonight, I said I have to get out. I have to do something.”
She hadn’t planned to get on stage to tell her story, but at the last moment, she walked up and described a childhood devastated by her brother’s diagnosis of leukemia and the insurance company’s refusal to pay his medical bills. She said she was 10 years old when her brother, then 13, died. After that, she watched heir father, who owned a grocery store in Idaho, slip deep into debt.
“When you work your whole life, you think 'That’s not me,'” she said, adding that she and her husband both have good jobs. “But we’re only one illness away from it being us.”
Posted by: jhogg | September 4, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: KBlit | September 4, 2009 11:36 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: helen11 | September 4, 2009 12:28 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Jumpy66 | September 4, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: ancient_mariner | September 4, 2009 1:11 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: UpAndOver | September 4, 2009 1:44 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: st50taw | September 4, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: vrob125 | September 4, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: eksanantonio | September 4, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: angie12106 | September 4, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: angie12106 | September 4, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Draesop | September 4, 2009 3:25 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: theobserver4 | September 4, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Trojan14 | September 4, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: kkish | September 4, 2009 4:07 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Akamai1 | September 4, 2009 4:41 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: candle96 | September 4, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: EAguard54 | September 4, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: russpoter | September 4, 2009 5:20 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: TexLex | September 4, 2009 5:30 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: lucavalcanti | September 4, 2009 5:31 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: surfingsam | September 4, 2009 5:31 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: janejaehning | September 4, 2009 5:58 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: ekim53 | September 4, 2009 6:47 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: ekim53 | September 4, 2009 6:51 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: tonyreeves | September 4, 2009 8:32 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: rburgess1 | September 4, 2009 8:47 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: UpAndOver | September 4, 2009 10:36 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: MHibernia | September 7, 2009 5:08 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: itsonly10AM | September 9, 2009 11:36 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.