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Rheta Johnson: Not a natural person


Rheta Grimsley Johnson



FISHTRAP HOLLOW --It's been a bad week here in the Hollow. 


A letter from the Mississippi Department of Revenue informed my county that I was ineligible for the homestead exemption on my house and land. "Applicant is not a natural person," it said. 


When I called to find out what that meant, a nice lady in Jackson said it meant I am dead. Take your Social Security card to your chancery clerk's office and tell them you are alive, she said. 


I did. I'm hoping they believed me. 


It's not a good month that begins with having to prove you are "a natural person." 


One night not long after that incident, my husband got a horrible pain in his right side. We thought it might be appendicitis. We got in the car and sped to the emergency room in Corinth, Miss. 


Five hours later we saw a doctor. 


"You are not alone," flashed a television message, meant to give comfort in the waiting room. That much was true. We were not alone. 


When we arrived around 9:30 p.m. on a non-holiday weeknight, the waiting room already was full. There were sick babies and old people on oxygen and a young woman huddled against a wall, apparently weak or in pain. I thought of Rodin's sculpture "The Gates of Hell." 


A sign next to the triage station informed us all that it could be two to three hours before we would see a doctor. Around 1 a.m., a clerical worker came out and changed that sign to read "five to six hours." At that point, some who had been in the waiting room for hours got up and left. 


I looked it up when we got home around nine the next morning. Some 120 million Americans each year visit an ER. That's 33 percent more than 20 years ago. 


But today there are 1,100 fewer emergency rooms than 20 years ago. Why? Because of high overhead. The ER cuts into hospital profit. 


Even with those dismal statistics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average wait time in an ER is 55 minutes, not five hours. 


I don't blame the medical personnel that we eventually met. They were unfailingly courteous and doing the best they could to bail out a sinking boat with a thimble. I'm sure they have their own ER horror stories. And there were oblique references to a death in the ER earlier that night, which would account for some of the delay. 


I do blame corporate bean-counters for not having a sane or humane contingency plan, an extra doctor or nurse on call for busy nights, nights with fatalities. 


I've had limited previous experience in the ER. In Tuscaloosa, Ala., my broken hand was X-rayed and put in a cast within an hour. In Paris, France, a taxi ride to the ER in the oldest operating hospital in the world, Hotel Dieu, resulted in an MRI within minutes, an emergency appendectomy within two hours and -- the best part -- a $3,000 bill three days later for the whole shooting match. Color me lucky. 


I keep thinking about those who were so discouraged that they left the ER before seeing a doctor that night. They had failed to prove they were "natural persons," deserving of reasonably prompt medical care. 




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