“Shit,” he said. “Shit.”
The room looked at the surgeon in horror. His hands were full of the rich dark blood that until moments ago coursed through the woman’s veins. Below him was the woman’s heart, stilled forever.
“Choose life. Choose Bernard General Hospital.”
The hospital’s motto drummed through his mind.
“Not today,” he thought. “Not in my OR.”
“How old was she?” he heard the murmured question in the back of the room.
“53.” The voice accusing, bitter.
The answer stabbed his heart anew. In 11 years, no one under 70 had died in this hospital. People chose Bernard General because they wouldn’t die.
“Shit,” he said again.
The Murder Board met three days later. The surgeon had been sent home after the woman died, and told not to return until the board convened. He would be on trial for “murder” – the hospital board’s term for anyone who died in their care. If found guilty, he’d not only be fired, but also blackballed from practicing medicine anywhere.
She’d died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm – a massive shredding of the body’s largest artery. He’d gone in confident, having done dozens of these surgeries. This one though – it looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off inside her. There had been nothing left to repair, but for 14 hours, he pushed his team forward.
If she survived, it would have been with severe paralysis from lack of oxygen to her extremities. Catastrophic brain damage was a given. But she would have lived.
“I don’t know why we’re even meeting,” the chairman of the Murder Board said.
The 15-member board nodded as one. The “trial” lasted three minutes. The surgeon was out.
Across the city, the actuary shook her head in disgust.
“At least $27 million dollars,” she said. “That includes an estimated lifespan of 92 years, with four more surgeries, hospital, rehab, medication, home care, hospice, family counseling. She was a golden goose.”
She turned to another spreadsheet.
“Plus another $212 million in lost business. That’s being conservative.”
“Jesus,” the hospital’s vice president said. “Can we keep it quiet?”
She looked up at him in surprise.
“Not my job,” she said.
“I suppose it’d get out anyway,” he mused.
“You’ll think of something,” she said. “Another campaign.”
He nodded, lost in thought. She waited for him to get up and leave. She wanted to get back to her numbers. She loved her job.
Eight months later, the marketing team won an award for their “Give Your Heart Some Love” campaign. It generated $18 million in individual donations and one whopping $50 million corporate gift. A new heart wing would open at Bernard General the next year equipped with the latest diagnostics for aortic aneurysms. Three top universities would rotate medical students through the center. A research grant was written for aortic transplants.
“Saving is up, but people are poorer than ever,” the young reporter pitched to the city editor. “It’s the hospitals and investment bankers who are getting rich off this. People save their entire life just to hand it over to hospitals and nursing homes in the end.”
The editor shook her head.
“People save so they can live longer,” she said. “Medicine helps them do that.”
“It’s a racket,” the reporter urged. “The average lifespan is over 95, but most people don’t know it. They have dementia or are on so much pain medication from the cancer…”
“Not a story,” the city editor interrupted.
“It’s the corporations that are getting rich out of this,” he argued.
“Let me chat with your editor for a moment, see what we can do.” She looked pointedly at her office door.
The young reporter rose and returned to his desk. He looked over toward the office window, watching his editor talk with the city editor. He tried to gauge how the conversation was going.
Inside the office, the city editor got right to the point.
“I’m not sure he’s going to make it in this newsroom,” she said.
“Oh, he’s all right,” the business editor said, speaking up for the first time. “Just young. You know.”
“Reel him in, will you?”
The city editor could imagine the shit storm that would rain down if she ran the story the reporter proposed. The newspaper was part of a vast public corporation. Most of its stock was held by institutional investors – including those representing the pension funds of hospitals, for instance.
“I’ll send him out to cover the opening of the new heart center at Bernard Medical,” the business editor suggested.
“Do that,” she said. “Send a photographer too.”
The candidate stood before a cheering crowd.
“I will institute mandatory health savings accounts,” he roared. “Ten percent of your paycheck will automatically go into an account and be matched by the employer and the government.”
The crowd howled its approval. He waited for the applause to die completely down.
“Of course, that doesn’t mean that’s all you should do,” he said somberly. “We all need to take personal responsibility for our own good health. A patriotic American will put by at least 20 percent of their take-home pay for their later years. Do you want to burden your children and grandchildren with your care during the best years of their lives?”
“No! No! No!” The crowd was livid at the thought. They looked around to see that their neighbor was in agreement. Who would be so unpatriotic as that?
“Together, we can do this.” The candidate was winding up, his voice rising again. The crowd held its breath for the defining statement. “Together, we can save. Together, we can choose life in America!”
Music rose to a deafening pitch; a sea of confetti dropped.
The candidate looked down and saw the rows of his top contributors. They represented pharmaceuticals, hospitals, brokerages specializing in the health care industry and insurance companies.
He couldn’t lose.
Julie Howard lives in Boise, Idaho. She was a reporter and editor for more than 20 years, including for The Sacramento Bee, Las Vegas Review-Journal and the bygone Maturity News syndicate. Ms. Howard now focuses solely on fiction, working on her novels and sandwiching in the quicker gratification of flash fiction and short stories.
Photo credit: Terri Malone