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This time around, I couldn't follow my own advice. In the flood-ravaged Medical Center, there was simply no place else to go.
Amazingly, during the aftermath of the June 9 deluge, Houstonians seemed to respond to appeals from the medical community not to get hurt. The number of patients treated at the Ben Taub emergency facility actually dropped in both June and July compared to the previous year. But the number of trauma and surgery cases rose, primarily because the Hermann facility next door -- Houston's only other top-tier trauma center -- had been flooded out. From 2,220 the previous June, those serious cases admitted to the Ben Taub ER rose 16 percent to 2,575. In July the numbers were up from 2,533 to 2,603, including me.
The Harris County Hospital District is often described by the media -- and treated by politicians -- as if it were strictly a medical system for the indigent. Yet the inner city continues to redevelop with middle-class, highly insured folks taking to the jogging trails and sidewalks of streets that were urban battle zones after dark only a few years ago. The result is that just about anybody -- regardless of income -- can find themselves heading to the Ben Taub ER.
If it could be done painlessly, I'd prescribe a night in the Tub for Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, a frequent critic of the hospital district, and all those pricky Young Conservatives so gung ho to cut off "illegal socialized medicine" to undocumented immigrants. My unanticipated visit drove home the point that funding good public health care is not strictly an altruistic proposition.
When President George W. Bush comes to town, he has first call on an operating room and an ICU bed at Ben Taub. And while their lives hang in the balance, trauma patients get that same presidential treatment.
When the medics unloaded me from the ambulance onto a stretcher and rolled me into one of the five ground-floor shock rooms, an eight-person surgical team was ready, one of three rotating units that staff the facility 24 hours a day.
First came the quick evaluation and cleaning of the head wound. Then it seemed like only minutes before needles were stabbing along my right brow, cheek and ear, deadening the way for what would be at least 42 stitches. The chief of the surgical team on duty, Francis Paul "Trip" Buckley III, took on the particularly messy and potentially disfiguring main wound over the right brow. That gash was the worst I've suffered in 54 years on the planet, although Buckley later described it as "run of the mill" for Ben Taub.
The sewn-up gash came out shaped like an inverted Y, with the bow creating a sort of second eyebrow highlighted by an exclamation point. I listened in a fog as Buckley instructed several junior residents in the fine art of tightening up the wound and quilting the flaps without leaving any space.
After complaining of pain, I got a shot of Toradol, an anti-inflammatory that didn't have much effect. But for a while, the shock of the injury seemed to be numbing enough. After garnering a few compliments from colleagues for the sew-up, Buckley moved on to other matters, and a junior resident stitched up the remaining cuts to the cheek and ear. Within 45 minutes it was finished, a first-class surgical treatment and a quality of medical care rivaling anything available in Houston.
As the doctor applied the finishing touches, I tentatively suggested that now might be the time to transfer me to Hermann Hospital next door. Chuckles sounded around the room. Hermann had been closed nearly a month.
As an attendant wheeled me out into the ER holding area, Ben Taub had shown the best it had to offer. Then came the rest of the night -- and a very different experience.
The subject of painkillers never surfaced again. I lay immobilized in a neck brace, looking up into a bright light from a portable bed in the ground-floor ER holding area. An ombudsman for patients took a message to pass along to my friends. They immediately came to Ben Taub but were bounced from one section to another. No one seemed to know my location.
I was ready to hit the streets but couldn't receive clearance without the completion of diagnostic X-rays and a facial CAT scan. First up was the scan, but apparently there was a long waiting line.
Around 10:30 p.m., a friend found me in the holding ward. With a growing sense that a very rough night lay ahead, I told my pal to go home and get some sleep while I prepared to tough it out. Ahead were 12 hours mostly spent in the neck brace and on my back.
Sometime after 1 a.m. I managed to get a cup of ice from the only nurse on the floor who seemed motivated to do anything more than take periodic blood pressure and temperature readings. Her name was Grace Hernandez. What's not so surprising is she was a visiting nurse on a short-term contract out of Chicago. Apparently she hadn't been around the Tub long enough to absorb the culture, a hands-off tough-love approach. Grace even struck up a conversation, soliciting directions on how to get to Garden in the Heights for Latino Night.