Recently, a local news station in Houston ran a story about a man who passed away while waiting for a hospital bed. The story went viral.
Daniel Wilkinson, a 46-year-old veteran who served two deployments in Afghanistan, presented to a community hospital a few doors down from his home in Bellville, Texas, a small town on the outskirts of Houston. He was feeling sick and was ultimately diagnosed with gallstone pancreatitis.
In countries with modern health systems, gallstone pancreatitis is a dangerous but highly treatable diagnosis—often requiring an emergency interventional procedure that can be done at most large referral hospitals (including many in the Houston area), followed by a short ICU stay. But with the COVID-19 pandemic raging throughout Texas and much of the larger region, finding an ICU bed these days is no small task. Wilkinson was forced to wait more than seven hours before a bed finally opened at a VA hospital in Houston. But by then, gas pockets had started to form inside Wilkinson’s pancreas, suggesting that the failing organ was spreading an infection throughout his body. After waiting too long to have that procedure done, Daniel Wilkinson died.
For a year or so, we’ve been told repeatedly that the American health system has been on the brink of collapse. In the past month, this phrase has been used to describe the plight of hospitals in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Alabama, and Alaska; last winter, it was used to describe health systems in California and Idaho. Mississippi’s health care system, in a recent New Yorker essay, was observed to be approaching statewide failure, while in a Politico headline at the start of the pandemic, hospitals in New York were quickly reaching a breaking point. Descriptions of health systems at the very limit of functionality rank among other COVID clichés like new normal and in these trying times.