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Patrick Henry: Numbers only tell part of the story

When the hometown team triumphs in a contest that, based on game statistics, it had no right to win, the announcer will inevitably remind us that, “Sometimes numbers don’t tell the whole story.”

While as a rule raw numbers rarely explain complex events, my recent experience with what some have termed the medical-industrial complex might be an exception.

Diagnosed with end-stage emphysema, I was placed on a lung transplant list in spring 2015 and a mere four months later “the call” came. A three-hour drive brought my wife and me to the Cleveland Clinic for what was to have been a three-week stay, but which, due to a series of complications, turned into a five-month ordeal.

Words are inadequate to describe that experience, but a few numbers might add a bit of flesh to the bones of our story. To wit: $1.5 million; 152 days in the hospital; 147 blood draws; 91 X-rays; 53 IV lines; 50 doctors; 39 nurses; 23 scans/ultrasounds; 16 personal care aides; 13 surgical procedures; 2 music/holistic therapists; 1 lung.

That last number, the smallest, is the most important. It refers to a successful organ transplant that allows me to breathe easily now for the first time in years.

The first number, the largest, equals the total charges for my care. The enormity of that figure raises questions: Am I worth it? Is it reasonable to spend so much of society’s resources on extending the life of a single person? Finally, what would have happened if Medicare and my insurance company had not been there to pick up most of the cost? Would I be bankrupt?

The next significant item on the list refers to blood draws, a procedure that, combined with IV lines, resulted in more than 200 assaults on my veins. Each individual poke was tolerably painful, but the cumulative effect was one of monotonous misery. Imagine trying to fall asleep at night knowing that at 4:30 a.m., a phlebotomist will arrive to begin again the search for a blood vessel able to withstand his needle.

Next to arrive each morning was the X-ray technician. His visits, as well as the multiple scans and ultrasounds, were relatively pain free. Still, one has to think about the danger of repeated exposures to magnetic and radioactive sources. Seeing that the technicians always positioned themselves well away from me before pressing the button, I wondered what that said about this threat.

The fact that 50 different physicians played a role in my case brings up issues of coordination and continuity of care. Although each doctor appeared to be highly skilled in his or her specialty, too often they failed to consult with each other on my treatment. Receiving conflicting opinions based on what one assumes is the same evidence does little to engender confidence in the patient.

Lastly, the 50-plus nurses, aides and holistic therapists who ministered to me on a daily basis were remarkable people. It was clear they had chosen the right profession, displaying extraordinary skill and compassion as they carried out even the most routine tasks. Their collective kindnesses made it possible to bear up under what otherwise would have been unbearable, and after five months many came to feel like friends or family. It is these caregivers, who never treated me as if I were merely “the patient in Bed 18” (i.e., just another number), to whom I will always be grateful.