Repairing a heart

The above images document the before and after of my father’s recent open-heart surgery.

TWO WEEKS AGO doctors cut open my father’s sternum, stopped his heart, and temporarily installed a cardiopulmonary bypass pump as they spent more almost eight hours replacing a damaged mitral valve. It was his third such open-heart operation in just two years. Before that his most recent operation was last November, one that I also returned home for from the Middle East where I live in order to be with him.

Caring for ailing loved ones is something most of us have done or will do at some point in our lives. And as we all know it’s not easy, especially when other factors interfere. One of the things that drove me into activism and later journalism was growing up and seeing my father battle one health issue after another.

At different times during the last two decades my father, like tens of millions of Americans, was without health insurance. That meant he was solely responsible for the exorbitant medical bills incurred from his illnesses. And for years I watched as he struggled to overcome not only his physical problems but the resulting financial problems as well.

“Hello, I’m looking for…” the voice would come on the phone asking for my father. “He’s not in,” I’d say, as he slept just feet away on the couch in his small one-bedroom apartment. Or, I would respond in a less diplomatic fashion and tell them to go to the hospital themselves and ask him for money as he underwent further costly treatment that he couldn’t expect to pay for either. The phone never stopped ringing, and most times I would just ignore it.

For an impressionable kid in his late teens, it made me furious. I had trouble understanding how treatment for the sick and unwell was a political issue and not a basic right. There is no excuse for a country that spends billions on killing people abroad to not invest in healthcare and take care of its own people at home.

In recent years my family has been more fortunate as my father has worked at a job, albeit one he’s overqualified for, that provides him with health insurance. And that insurance has allowed him some of the best medical care available, especially for his last two heart operations when he was transferred to the University of Chicago hospital on the city’s South Side.

I have to say that I am eternally grateful to the staff at the U of C hospital. They do an incredible job at treating people like my father in need of specialized treatment for an organ as complicated as the human heart. The doctors and nurses were both friendly and extremely professional, which was reassuring for us at such a worrying time.

But while the staff has stayed the same, the hospital has changed dramatically. My father’s second heart operation in November was conducted at the old hospital, which seemed perfectly fine in my non-medical opinion. However, it paled in appearance to the brand new $700,000,000 medical facility that opened in February just across the street. As I recently sat gazing out from what’s become one of the tallest buildings on Chicago’s sprawling South Side, I couldn’t ignore the blaring contradictions staring right back at me.

Driving south on Cottage Grove Avenue the hospital emerges behind the trees and low-lying homes like a massive alien spacecraft that landed smack in the middle of the South Side. In an area where some of the only neighborhood shops you’ll find are liquor stores, and empty lots and boarded up homes are visible on every street, the hospital is one of the only signs of development on the South Side.

But that surrounding community is clearly not who the hospital is intended to serve.

In recent months, activists on the South Side have protested at the U of C demanding it open a trauma center to treat gunshot victims. The U of C sits in the middle of one of one of the areas with the highest rates of gun violence in the entire country. However, the hospital isn’t equipped with a trauma center to treat gunshot victims, even when they’re shot almost literally in its shadow. Instead, they’re forced to travel to the nearest trauma center, a journey that has proven to be fatal for some. In 2010 18-year-old Damian Turner was shot less than a quarter mile from the U of C hospital. Turner died en route to the nearest Level 1 trauma center more than ten miles away in the city’s downtown.

Chicago’s South Side is a microcosm of the growing inequality in the US where the bottom 90 percent control less than a quarter of the country’s wealth while the top one percent control more than one-third. And it’s clear that to the authorities the lives of working people simply aren’t worth as much. Since President Obama first took office in 2009, nearly 2,000 people were killed in Chicago before he paid a visit to a single victim’s family. Many of the killings happened within blocks of Obama’s Chicago home. Last year when mass shootings occurred in wealthier areas in Colorado and Connecticut, killing 12 and 26 respectively, Obama was on the scene within days offering condolences to grieving families.

Chicago is hurting, and the status quo can’t sustain itself for much longer. And while the logical solution for many would be for the local government to invest in the struggling communities, Chicago’s mayor has taken the reverse approach and is waging new attacks on working people. Last Thursday, while Rahm Emanuel was on a ski holiday, his office announced the biggest mass public school closing in US history — nearly all of the 54 schools located in predominantly poor Black and Latino communities. It’s no coincidence that those same neglected communities are also experiencing the highest rates of violence.

Being home and knowing my father’s heart is fixed and he’s on the road to recovery couldn’t make me happier. But this city full of many hard-working people just like my father is in bad shape, and if something doesn’t change soon, well, no hospital around is going to be able to repair the damage no matter how shiny its exterior.