When the propane oven exploded in Karina Mackow’s face, she was lucky. An emergency medical technician was on the scene and knew what to do – reduce the heat of her seared flesh by applying cold, wet towels..
It’s what happened afterward, says Mackow, 21, that makes her a poster child for demanding socialized medicine in America.
She had spent four months in New Orleans volunteering with a group that’s helping victims of Hurricane Katrina rebuild their lives. But everything in the house that served as the base for some 200 volunteers ran on propane – many parts of New Orleans still aren’t rewired for electricity.
In early March, Mackow, the crew cook, opened the oven door to light its pilot. She had done so many times before, but, on this night, her head in the oven with a lit match, it exploded in a blue flame that burned her face, neck and entire right arm.
She says she remembers screaming when the volunteer EMT who happened to be in the house took her out of the kitchen and started running cold water on her. Then she was wrapped and rewrapped in wet towels before an ambulance took her to Tulane University Hospital.
But Tulane turned her away – no burn specialist on hand, she was told, and, as it happens, no insurance. She was transferred two hours north to a hospital in Baton Rouge and spent a month recovering from her second-degree burns.
Mackow now works in Seattle as a barrista, a job in which it won’t be easy to pay off the medical bills that she estimates will top $4,000.
“I lost my brows, my lashes, and the front part of my hair,” the chipper Mackow says. But “that immediate taking the heat out prevented scarring.”
It’s no coincidence that the organizers of a July 18 forum on the need for universal healthcare put Mackow forward to tell her story. Like other healthcare workers around the nation, the doctors and nurses scheduled to speak at “From Sicko to Sanity” have timed the event to tap the awareness being raised by Michael Moore’s new documentary on the human tragedy of America’s for-profit insurance system.
The main subjects whose stories are told in the film Sicko are a nurse, fireman and others who rushed to volunteer at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks and have lost years of their lives trying to get medical help for the respiratory, post-traumatic stress and other disorders they ended up with as a result.
Mackow says the incident in New Orleans puts her in the same boat. She was a volunteer who picked up the government’s slack, only to get lashed by it.
“To me, it’s a national disaster and the federal government should have been helping heal, recover and rebuild,” she says. Instead, she adds, “ordinary people go down [to New Orleans and] put their health at risk because the government failed.”
“So many people have sustained injuries helping out,” Mackow says. “Any volunteer should have immediate health insurance.”
Physicians for a National Health Program, one of the sponsors of the July 18 forum, believes all Americans should be covered by a single-payer government program. That would avert the suffering and high cost that Moore and the doctors’ group say insurance companies and HMOs cause – for instance, by denying a medical procedure that could have saved the life of cancer victim Tracy Pierce, a husband and father whose passing is not an isolated story in Moore’s film.
In June, Pierce’s widow, Julie, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives, which is now looking at a number of healthcare proposals, including House Resolution 676, the United States Health Insurance Act backed by Reps. John Conyers, Dennis Kucinich, Donna Christensen and Seattle’s Jim McDermott.
First introduced by Conyers in 2003, the act would expand Medicare, which currently provides care for all senior citizens, to the entire U.S. population – a long-overdue move that, says nurse Stacie Addison, would prevent the needless medical emergencies that beset the 47 million Americans who have no health coverage.
While working as a public-health nurse in Colorado, says Addison, one of the speakers scheduled for the “Sicko” forum, “I came across a horrific case of parents not being able to afford a [child’s] tooth extraction because they couldn’t pay the $80,” she says, “and the tooth abscess went into the brain” – killing the child and sacking the parents with a quarter-million in hospital bills.
“I just feel the time has come where we really need to look at the kind of America where kids can die of ridiculous things, tragically absurd things, in what’s supposed to be the greatest country in the world,” she says.
“If there was a rollback on some of the tax cuts that were given to the wealthy people in this country, that alone would be completely sufficient to pay for healthcare for everyone,” says Addison, who supports HR 676.
“Health can never be a for-profit system,” says burn victim Mackow. “Just that fact is asking for corruption because the bottom line is profit, so you’re going to sacrifice things like people’s health for the dollar.”