Thursday, June 01, 2006

June 1, 2006 - Squirrel on a Power Line

There’s an apocryphal story some folks from my tradition like to tell on ourselves (although, in fact, the story works equally well for most Protestant traditions). Once there was a Catholic church, a synagogue and a Presbyterian church, that occupied three of the four corners of an intersection. A terrible lightning storm came along, one day, and it so happened that all three places of worship were struck, and set afire.

The three spiritual leaders happened to be nearby, and arrived at their respective burning buildings at roughly the same time.

The Catholic priest rushed into his sanctuary, and emerged a few moments later with the most precious thing he could think of: the Blessed Sacrament.

The rabbi ran into his synagogue, and came out a moment later, carrying the Torah scroll.

The Presbyterian minister ran into her church, but didn't come out.

The minutes ticked by. The fire got worse. Her two colleagues were beginning to wonder if she was all right.

They ran around to the back of the building, and there they came upon their friend, the Presbyterian minister, sitting exhausted on the curb. She was covered with soot, her head in her hands.

"Are you all right?" they asked.

"Don't worry, I'm fine," she replied. "You simply have no conception how heavy a photocopy machine is!"

Now, remember that story, as I tell you this one.

First thing this morning, I drive our daughter Ania to the nearby Ocean Care Center – a satellite emergency room and outpatient-services center of Ocean Medical Center – for a routine blood test ordered by her doctor. When we arrive there, we see several fire trucks outside the building, and a plume of smoke spiraling up from a smoldering, dumpster-like box on the adjacent Blockbuster video store property.

The box is a collection-bin for used clothing donations. Our first assumption is that some vandal has set it afire. When we arrive at the emergency room, though, the admitting clerk tells us the fire was caused by an unlucky squirrel that was walking along the main electrical power line into the Care Center. The mega-jolt sent the poor, electrocuted beast soaring through the air like some grisly firework. The power line itself caught on fire, and fell down onto the clothing-donation bin, setting off the bags of used clothing inside. It’s a freak accident – and a not-too-dangerous fire – that the volunteer firefighters, Point Pleasant’s finest, are already well on their way to extinguishing.

The Care Center, however, is on emergency-generator power. Can they still do a blood draw, I ask? Oh, sure, says the clerk (it looks like we’re the only clients there at this hour). She has us sit down for the obligatory registration procedures, at the common check-in desk used by both the emergency room and the outpatient-services department.

The clerk apologizes that, due to the fire, not everything electrical is working. There’s no air conditioning in the mostly-windowless building, and she has to walk down the hall to find a functioning photocopier, to copy our insurance ID card.

The lights are on, though, and her computer is working just fine. All the high-tech machines back in the emergency room are evidently working, as well (not that we need any such thing today – coming, as we have, for a decidedly low-tech blood draw).

Therein lies a parable of modern medicine. Suppose you were running an emergency room, and you had to figure out which electrical devices were most essential, in the event of a power failure. Which would you choose?

Any medical machine that sustains life is a no-brainer – as are appliances like refrigerators, to keep medicine cool and ice-packs frozen. Lights are important, too, so doctors and nurses can see what they’re doing. Yet there’s one other device, whose functioning is so essential to twenty-first century American medicine, it’s got to be plugged into the emergency-power grid.

I’m speaking, of course, of the computer. God forbid that patients should arrive at an emergency room, and not be able to have their medical-insurance information processed!

Now, I know the Care Center’s computer system does much more than handle insurance billing. Modern hospitals keep all sorts of medical information on their computer networks. Yet this particular terminal in the registration area, I’m quite sure, is used only for patient check-in – and this machine is evidently considered a high-priority asset.

I can’t say I’m surprised. At one time, insurance companies would have been considered peripheral to the work of medicine. Now, the machines that service their needs are right up there with the ventilators and defibrillators (or so it would seem).

I’m glad the computer terminal was still working, because it meant we experienced no delays, and Ania got to school on time. But it does set the mind to wondering...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I want to know where you got these great squirrel photos!? Today I learned that we owe maple syrup, at least anecdotally, to the red squirrel. (I was watching Animal Planet, of course!) In the winter when the thousands of pine cones they eat each year are no longer available, they strip a bit of bark from maple (& similar) trees, let the sap evaporate in the sun to increase the sugar content, then eat it. According to legend, a Native American observed the red squirrel doing this and came up with maple syrup! (Better than fried squirrels, as per your story!) R