There are plenty of cases in this book where you find just frustration with the way our health care system works or does not work. You know, one interesting story you tell is of a woman who comes into the emergency room. This is not during the COVID days. She comes into the emergency room, and she wants chemotherapy treatments, and she knows she has cancer. And in fact, she has detailed instructions from the oncologist who has been treating her. Why was she coming to the emergency room?
NAHVI: Well, she came to the emergency room because her oncologist had stopped treating her. So what her story was – she was a young lady. She was diagnosed with cancer. And then she started getting treatment for her cancer with an oncologist at a private – not-for-profit but private institution. And then what happened was that because of her chemotherapy and her cancer treatments, she took too many sick days from her job. So she ended up losing her job. Then she lost her health insurance because of losing her job.
So her chemo – her oncologist wasn’t able to see her anymore because she didn’t have insurance anymore. So he or she referred this patient to our hospital, which was a public hospital where I was working at the time. She didn’t understand that she had to go see an oncologist. So she just came to the emergency room. And I thought there was a misunderstanding.
I saw her, and I said, you know, I’m an ER doctor. I – if I could treat you, I absolutely would. I just don’t have these tools. I don’t have that capability. And then we ended up kind of going from there. But that’s how she ended up in the emergency room with me.
DAVIES: But it’s interesting – I mean, it would take her, I think she said, weeks or months to get an appointment with an oncologist. And she knew that if you come to the ER, they have to treat you, right? I mean, so she figured, hey, you can’t send me away.
NAHVI: That was what she told us, yes. She said that she was familiar, that there was some law out there, that if you are uninsured under any circumstances, you come to an emergency room, we have to treat you. And she’s right. Except the caveat to that, which kind of is what made me so uncomfortable at that time, was that she had a great understanding of the situation, except that what we have to do in the ER is stabilize you, not necessarily treat you. So you have to be evaluated by law. And whatever we can do to stabilize you, we have to do.
In the eyes of this legislation, she was stable. So she had cancer, and she was dying, but she was dying slowly. She wasn’t dying quickly. So she was technically stable. And it became this kind of horrible thing that I had to explain to her that, yes, you’re protected by this law and yes, you have cancer and yes, you’re dying, but I can’t help you.
An ER doc reflects on life, death and uncertainty in the early days of COVID-19