Right to Live
by Gordon Sun
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Danny Miller had a restless night, waking up Monday morning feverish and with an upset stomach. He only managed to take a couple spoonfuls of chicken soup at the dining table before rushing to the bathroom. While he remained inside, Sue first called her supervisor, Randy, to let him know she’d be unavailable for work. Randy documented it as unscheduled leave without pay and said blandly that he would just find someone else to work her shifts.
Next, Sue called up a nearby pharmacy to see if the technical problem with the VI diagnostic centers had resolved. After waiting on hold for 45 minutes, a woman’s voice picked up. Sue began to talk, but the other end was on autopilot. In a clipped voice, the bot apologized for the delay and said that all of the VI stations were still offline. It didn’t provide an expected day or time of return to service. Sue hung up.
“Goddammit!” Sue cursed. “Well, now this sounds like an emergency. I’ll call a goddamn ambulance. Dammit, I should’ve done this yesterday.”
She dialed 911. The operator picked up five rings later.
“911, what is your emergency?” a male voice said.
“My son’s sick, and I can’t get him to a doctor. Can you send an ambulance to pick him—”
“Caller, please clarify if this is a medical emergency,” the voice suddenly interrupted.
Sue shook her head. Of course it was a city government bot. “Yeah. My son’s been vomiting and having diarrhea since Saturday—”
“Noted. Please state if this is a personal emergency.”
“What? Personal? Yeah, it is.”
“Noted. Please provide your medical coverage plan. If you are insured under the MOM Act, please provide your national MOM identification number. If you are insured by a private carrier, please provide the name of the insurer and the policy number. If you are uninsured, please say ‘uninsured’ or ‘none.’”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t under—”
“Noted. Please provide your nearest street intersection.”
“Um, West Euclid and South Cactus.”
“Noted.” The bot paused momentarily. “At the present time, all city ambulances are in use. You are... 192nd... in line for the next ambulance. Estimated wait time is... over 24 hours. Estimated base cost for ambulance pickup is... 4,200 dollars. To continue processing your request, say or press 1.”
“Dammit.” Sue disconnected the call. Looking around, she realized that Danny had returned his bedroom. She found him already asleep and curled into a tight ball underneath his comforter.
Returning to the family room, Sue paced the floor, muttering to herself and occasionally tugging absently at her shirt. She picked up her tablet and set it down. She gazed out the window, fingers drumming on the sill. She stared at her smartphone, lying on the coffee table.
After an agitated half-hour, Sue finally grabbed her phone and dialed a number.
“Yeah, it’s me,” Sue said when the line picked up.
The voice on the other end was caustic. “Susan.”
“Mother.” Sue fell silent, unsure how to continue.
“So, after two years, you decide to call. You really don’t give a damn about your mom, do you?”
“It’s not like that.”
“Oh, I know you, Susan Miller. It’s always been about you. And I know you’re calling me for a reason.”
Sue didn’t reply.
“You screwed up, didn’t you? You ran out of money, and now you want a bailout. Or wait, maybe you got knocked up again—”
“Then what is it? Am I wrong?”
It was Nancy Miller’s turn to be quiet.
“You hear me? It’s—”
“Yeah. What is it?”
“He’s sick. Vomiting and diarrhea.”
“I don’t know. We were outside for a while the other day. It was hot, but the DPI was a 1, and they said it was safe.”
“Really. You let him play outside? Without protection?”
“We didn’t need it. Not Saturday, at least.”
“You knew how risky that was, and you did it anyway. You even have insurance? Course not. If you had it, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, would we?”
Sue sputtered. “You bitch—”
“I don’t know, Susan, were you expecting something different? I’ve told you for years, you either find a real man and let him take care of you, or you join the service like your sister and let Uncle Sam take care of you. I don’t care either way. Just as long as you stop being a goddamn parasite. I swear, that car accident turned you into a little snowflake.”
“Screw you! Danny needs help, not me.”
“From me? I’m in a wheelchair, in another goddamn state, living off what little’s left of your father’s assets, and you beg for my help? This is—”
Sue angrily hung up and threw the phone across the room, where it skidded across the kitchen floor and slammed into a wall. Feeling another headache coming on, she quickly went to the bathroom, gathered up all the medications, and returned to the family room, dumping everything in a pile. She found a bottle of aspirin, popped the lid, and dry-swallowed two tablets.
Sue then picked out the prophylactic she bought yesterday and looked closely at the label. The medication was a formulation of bismuth and best used before or during consumption of potentially contaminated food. Taking it after onset of gastrointestinal symptoms would not be effective.
Sue cursed in frustration. She didn’t know enough about these things to decide what to do. Her mother was, exasperatingly, right about the insurance. They could’ve gotten somewhere sooner if they had any doctor at all, someone with connections to local hospitals. Waiting until the last second to get medical attention was a bad idea. Now Sue would have to pay out of pocket. After a meandering Internet search on her tablet, she finally settled on a medical ratings website and picked out a highly-rated physician group at random.
Sue retrieved her phone, which thankfully wasn’t broken, and dialed the clinic’s office number while scrolling through their website. The line picked up almost immediately. “Good morning, White Sands Medical Clinics. My name is Lauren, how may I assist you today?” a chipper voice said.
“Hi, my name is Sue Miller. I’d like to speak with a doctor about getting an appointment,” Susan said, trying to sound upbeat.
“Certainly. Are you a current client?” Lauren asked.
“No. Is that a problem?”
“Of course not. We do new consultations for reasonable rates. On site or at home?”
“What do you mean?”
“You may either make an appointment in our offices, or if you wish we can send a team directly to you.”
Home visits? Sue could hardly keep the excitement out of her voice. “Could you come to us? I don’t have a car and the metro doesn’t come down this far.”
“That’s why we offer this service. What is the reason for the visit? An immediate concern, or a more long-term care need?”
“Well, um, my son’s been sick for a few days, and I haven’t been able to get him to a doctor. We’ve been turned away at so many places,” Susan said, almost apologetically. “I’m just at my wits’ end.”
“Oh, no problem at all. People often use our services on occasion when the local urgent care clinic’s closed, for example. As you probably know, our acute services are 5-star rated on all the most reputable social networks and review aggregators.”
“Yeah, I saw that.”
“Great. Then all we need is your contact information and method of payment for the initial 450-dollar consultation fee.”
Sue swallowed, but quickly provided the requested information. “What does this cover?”
“It covers your scheduled appointment time and travel costs for our team, but no incidentals—”
“Good enough,” Sue interrupted. “When are you coming?”
“Please give us thirty minutes.”
* * *
Twenty-five minutes later, a large black electric-powered truck silently pulled onto the curb in front of the Millers’ apartment complex. A moment later, there was a knock at the front door. Sue opened it to reveal four men and women, accompanied by a robotic dolly carrying a few boxes of equipment.
“Hi there,” said the older man standing in front. He wore a freshly-pressed white lab coat over a dress shirt, slacks, and navy-blue tie. “We’re from White Sands. Are you Sue Miller?”
“Yeah. You’re the doctor?”
“Yes. May we enter?”
“Please, of course,” Sue said. The group entered in a row, the dolly taking up the rear. She shut the door behind them and led them into the family room.
“Thanks for coming,” Sue said after the White Sands team had settled into a loose half-circle. “We just didn’t know what else to do.”
“It’s why we’re here,” replied the doctor. “I’m Dr. Lloyd Chapman, a pediatrician. Ms. Linda Schuster and Mr. Marc Rodrigo are my longtime nurse and technician respectively, and Ms. Isabel Nguyen handles care coordination and finances.”
Rodrigo, a burly man with a thick mustache and beard, spoke up in a gravelly tone. “Good to meet you, Ms. Miller. We utilize a number of portable technologies to assist us with our house calls. Most anything we need is in here.” He patted the pile of equipment on the dolly. The case manager, Nguyen, quietly retreated to a corner, pulled out a large cell phone, and began swiping it.
“Where’s Danny?” Schuster asked kindly. The white-haired nurse wore a short white coat over light blue scrubs. “We should probably get started.”
“He’s down the hall,” said Sue. “I’ll bring him out. I don’t think you all are gonna fit in his bedroom.”
“Wait, before you go,” said Chapman. “Some things you need to sign.”
The doctor reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a tablet. “This is for written consent for history-taking and physical examination, which may include blood tests, imaging, that sort of thing,” he said, tapping the tablet. “Standard procedure.” Chapman handed it to Sue.
Sue quickly glanced through the pages of verbiage. “Any questions?” Chapman continued.
“No.” Sue signed with a fingertip and handed the tablet back. She quickly left and returned moments later with her son in tow. Danny’s complexion was pasty, his light-brown hair was tousled, and there were shadows under his eyes.
“What’s happening, Mommy?” Danny asked sleepily.
“There’s a nice doctor here to see you,” Sue said. “Sit with me on the couch.”
“Okay, Mommy.” Danny immediately laid his head in Susan’s lap, his breathing light.
“Hello there, Danny,” Chapman said, adopting an avuncular tone and crouching next to his patient. “My name is Dr. Chapman. Your mommy asked me to see why you aren’t feeling so good.”
Danny raised his head. “I’m tired.”
“I know. If you can help Mommy answer a couple of questions, that would be very good.”
“All right, then,” Chapman said, turning his attention back to Sue, “tell me a little about your son and what’s happened.”
“Danny is eight years old,” Sue began. “He’s been pretty healthy his whole life. We were outside this weekend... um, in the park across the street. You know, because the weather’s been good. The DPI was a 1.”
“I think a lot of people were thinking the same thing,” Chapman replied, jotting something on the tablet.
“Yeah, exactly. I don’t normally let him go outside the apartment because of the pollution. I don’t have a car, so I telecommute. We do almost everything indoors. School, work, shopping, everything.”
“You all have lived here in Arizona the whole time?”
“No, we moved from Vegas. But the air’s been bad everywhere.”
“It’s hard to avoid no matter where you live.”
“Yeah. The apartment’s rated for air filtration and purification, which is the most I can afford.”
“Okay. Go on. You said you were in the park.”
“Yeah, we were in the park and the community pool for a few hours. We went home after the pool closed.”
“This was when?”
“Saturday, so two days ago. Danny threw up a little that night, but I figured he was just worn out.”
“What did he have to eat or drink that day?”
“I cooked breakfast and lunch, nothing out of the ordinary. He could only keep down soup and some fluids in the evening. Actually, that’s pretty much all he’s been able to handle for the last couple of days.”
“He had some water during the day. I have a home decon unit.”
“How much did he drink?”
“Maybe a bottle or so at the park.”
“Were you outside long?”
Sue frowned. “Yeah. Probably about... four hours total. I wanted to leave sooner but, um, I fell asleep at the pool.”
Chapman made another note on his pad. “All right. Then what happened?”
“On Sunday he started having diarrhea instead of throwing up.”
“I see. He’s had no problem urinating?”
“I’m not sure, actually. I didn’t really check.”
“Fine. Anything else?”
“Well, Danny started saying his belly hurt yesterday. And he’s been really drowsy.”
“I see. No breathing problems or chest pain?”
“Headaches, neck pain, or dizziness?”
“No. I mean, yeah, he said his head hurt. He maybe had a mild fever, I don’t know. Don’t have a thermometer.”
“Does he take medications?”
“Not regularly. He only took some albuterol and fluticasone inhalers before he went outside on Saturday.”
“None that I know of.”
“And you said he has no previous medical problems?”
“Yeah. I mean, yes, Danny doesn’t have any medical problems.”
“Do you have any medical records handy? From his last doctor’s visit?”
“No, I’m sorry.” Sue looked at the floor in embarrassment. “He hasn’t seen a pediatrician in years. I... I don’t have any health insurance for myself or Danny. That’s why we called you.”
“Please understand, we’ve taken the bus, we’ve walked so many places on Sunday trying to get help. Nothing’s worked.” Sue nervously ran her fingers through her son’s hair. “I even called 911, but the operator said we gotta wait over 24 hours and pay over four grand just for the ambulance ride. You gotta help Danny. Please.”
“We’ll do what we can.” Chapman now addressed Danny. “What’s bothering you the most, Danny?”
Danny stirred weakly. “Tummy hurts.”
“Are you hungry or thirsty?”
After a pause, Danny mumbled, “Thirsty.”
“Ms. Miller, why don’t you get him a glass of water.” Sue got up slowly, the sharp pain in her back starting up again, and went into the kitchen. Chapman glanced at her for a moment, then turned back to the boy. “Are you peeing?” Chapman asked.
“Were you pooping a lot?”
“Did you see any blood?”
“Do you feel warm?” Danny remained quiet. “Danny?”
“Huh?” The boy shook his head.
“Danny, do you feel warm?”
“I don’t know. A little.” Danny’s gaze looked a bit wobbly.
“Maybe we’ll just get to the exam.” Chapman looked at his crew. “Marc, could you get the POC equipment set up?” The tech nodded, cracked his knuckles, and began unpacking boxes from the dolly.
“What’s going on?” Sue asked, returning with the water. “Is Danny all right?”
“We just need more data,” Chapman replied calmly. “Linda, please get Danny’s vitals.”
“Sure thing,” Schuster said pleasantly. The nurse turned to Danny and said, “Honey, give me your right arm.” She rolled up Danny’s pyjama sleeve and secured a plastic white band to his upper arm. The nurse then pasted a small white sticker over Danny’s left temple. Lights on the armband and the sticker blinked light blue. The vital sign monitors beeped quietly, steadily. Chapman glanced at his tablet.
“Is everything all right?” Sue asked again.
“His temperature is a bit high and his breathing and heart rate are a little fast, but let’s keep looking.” Danny squinted and jerked his head when Chapman flashed a bright penlight in his eyes. The pediatrician peered into Danny’s ears, nose, and mouth, making a note about dry lips and oral mucosa. Chapman then placed handheld electronic probes over the boy’s chest and abdomen. “Can you try to breathe a little deeper?” the doctor asked.
“Okay,” Danny muttered groggily.
After a minute or so of moving the probes around, Chapman set them aside. “Can you get up?” Chapman asked. “I need you to walk around a bit.”
“Too tired,” the boy said, shifting uneasily in his mother’s lap. “Too cold.”
“That’s okay. We’ll get you a blanket.”
Sue went to fetch Danny’s comforter as the physician finished the exam. Chapman sat down in an empty chair and began inspecting results on his tablet. “Can we start the POC tests?” Chapman asked his tech.
“Sure,” Rodrigo responded. He gently placed Danny’s hand inside a rectangular, vaguely clam-shaped device, white on the outside and light blue on the inside. The device beeped, and Danny suddenly twitched and mumbled something unintelligible.
“What was that?” Sue said in alarm, as she returned with the comforter in her arms. She laid the blanket lightly over Danny.
“Blood testing with microneedles. The machine pricks the fingertips and does routine analysis all in one go: blood counts, metabolic panel, that sort of thing. This is commonplace technology, don’t worry,” Chapman replied reassuringly.
From the corner of the family room, Nguyen looked up from her phone, made eye contact with Chapman, and nodded. “Excuse me,” the doctor said to Sue. “The test results will be ready momentarily. Just try to relax.”
Chapman and Nguyen huddled in the corner, out of earshot of the others in the room. “What’s the situation, Isabel?” Chapman asked.
“We ran the financial screen on the information Ms. Miller gave us over the phone.”
“What do you think?” Nguyen snorted. “I’m extremely concerned about her ability to pay.”
“Another one.” Chapman rubbed his nose. “How many is that this month?”
Nguyen ignored the question. “Ms. Miller looks young enough to qualify for MOM. Wonder why she hasn’t gone all in already. None of us would be wasting our time.”
Copyright © 2019 by Gordon Sun