A few years ago, Carla Sageth was in high school, and she was dying. Her lungs were wasting away. Doctor after doctor at clinic after clinic diagnosed asthma and sent her on her way. She became unable to walk, and still her mom, who had no insurance, kept trying to find a doctor who could put Carla right. Finally one of them just told Carla and her mother that Carla's was a very bad case of asthma, in fact, so bad that it would kill her in a few months.
That was when Carla finally made it to the pediatric unit at Ben Taub. Doctors there weren't content with the asthma diagnosis, and their misgivings were correct. In fact, Carla was suffering from bronchiectasis, and that diagnosis saved her life.
Today, Sageth told her story with tears in her eyes in front of a jam-packed meeting of the board of the Harris County Hospital District, which recently announced plans to shutter the Ben Taub Pediatrics unit.
HCHD says they need the unit's 31 beds for adult patients, and that the pediatrics unit is often underused at certain times of year. (Demand for the beds waxes in winter flu season and wanes in the hotter months.) Closure of Ben Taub's pediatrics unit is just one option among many, an HCHD spokesman said, including consolidating operations with LBJ hospital (at either campus) and some sort of "public-private interface."
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Doctors at the pediatrics unit say any elimination of children's beds would be a mistake for a multitude of reasons. From the lectern at the board meeting and again at a press conference on the oak-shaded front lawn of HCHD HQ on Holly Hall Street, former Ben Taub pediatrician Kathy King and several of her colleagues pointed out that theirs is one of only three pediatric intensive care units in Houston. King added that the pediatrics unit is absolutely vital to the training of pediatric doctors in a multitude of disciplines.
King is chairwoman of the board of Doctor's For Change, a group that advocates for just and universal healthcare. She added that Ben Taub's pediatrics unit is a prime source of health care for Houston's uninsured and underinsured population, a number that already stands at 200,000 and grows with each day our economy continues its slide. Even now, they are starting to see families from higher up the economic ladder than ever, people who never expected to set foot in any part of that fearsome hulk of a hospital some call "The Tub."
While HCHD can point to numbers that prove that LBJ and Ben Taub at times do not operate at maximum efficiency, it must be remembered that efficiency is in the eye of the beholder. HCHD's view is based on the realities of today, and even at that, doesn't take into account the doctors' contentions about Ben Taub's value as a teaching venue. But even in bottom line terms HCHD's view doesn't make much sense. In this time of economic sorrow, the truly efficient decision would be the one that looks toward the grim likelihoods of tomorrow.
Nor does it take into account the happy outcomes, like Sageth's, of yesterday.