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What happens when the cause of death is indigence?

We go to the hospital expecting to be treated for our illness and expecting to be treated with respect. For one Washington, D.C. man, the lack of both cost him his life. As reported by The Washington Post, Warren Webb was being treated at United Medical Center in Washington D.C. for conditions related to HIV. One early morning last August, he screamed for help.

After hearing Webb yelling from his room that he could not breathe, the nurse responded to him, and rather than examining him, simply raised his bed, taking him from a supine position to sitting. Distracted, she subsequently engaged in an argument with Webb’s roommate.

During this time, Webb rolled out of his bed and fell on the floor. After lying on the floor for more than 20 minutes, his diaper askew, the nurse finally attended to him. Repositioning him in bed, neither the nurse, nor the security personnel she had summoned, was able to locate a pulse and Webb was pronounced dead at the scene. 

Can being poor kill you?

UMC has been cited before for problems with their medical treatment. Last August also saw the shuttering of the hospital’s obstetrics unit after discoveries were made regarding sub-par and potentially dangerous treatment of mothers and newborns. The Washington Post reported that the closing was due to “dangerous mistakes the hospital’s staff made with multiple pregnant women and newborns.”

The patient base at UMC is largely indigent and largely African-American. What happens when economics and funding create a situation where the poorest residents of the U.S. are being harmed by the very medical system they turn to for help?

Without more transparency, dangerous conditions cannot be alleviated. Whether that will happen, remains to be seen. A quote from D.C. Council member, Vincent C. Gray, aptly describes current conditions and the likelihood of change: “The continued struggles of United Medical Center highlight the unacceptable chasm in health equity that is currently a way of life (italics added) for residents on the East End of the District of Columbia.”

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