Eugene Weekly : Natural Resistance : 9.10.09

Best Care in the World
Public health works in other countries
by Mary O’Brien

The public health care debate is heartbreaking to watch. Many U.S. senators cannot conceive of voting for universal health care, and most western industrialized nations can’t conceive of their society without it.

 In 1966 I attended a semester of college in Denmark. I lived with a Danish family who had two young sons. Curtis, the sweet-spirited 8-year-old, had progressive muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis. Each month, a social worker would visit the family, asking my Danish “parents,” Faye and Gyde, if they needed any help. One time Faye said yes, that Curtis was no longer able to walk around the whole block in the evening. The next day, a fine child’s wheelchair was delivered to Curtis. This was Danish public health care.

In 1988, our younger son Zeke, then 14, was the recipient of such health care in Yugoslavia. While we were hiking as a family in the Julian Alps of Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia), Zeke began manifesting neurological symptoms. We took a bus down to Ljubljana. Within 20 minutes of arriving at the hospital, Zeke was given a spinal tap and four treatments had begun for possible causes of his drooping left arm and head. The staff predicted Zeke was going to become much sicker before he would get better. Apologetically, they said that because we were from the U.S., where medical care would not be free to visiting Yugoslavs, they would have to charge us $20 for Zeke’s admission to the neurological hospital’s intensive care ward.

During the next seven days, Zeke lost the ability to move his legs and then his arms. He lost the ability to talk and then to swallow food. Every third day a new CAT scan showed a greater area of his basal ganglia had died, and a greater area was infected. The hospital had Zeke on multiple forms of life support; phoned India (where we had just been backpacking); and one day commandeered a Columbia University medical professor who was passing through Ljubljana to help them search electronically worldwide for clues to Zeke’s illness.

We phoned the French family with whom our older son had lived for a year when he was 12. They put us in touch with Strasbourg’s best neurologist. Initially skeptical that Zeke would be receiving adequate care, the neurologist phoned the Ljubljana neurological hospital.

“He’s fine there,” the Strasbourg neurologist concluded to us. “He’s receiving the best care available in the world.”

Twenty-eight days after Zeke entered the hospital, he was once again able to stand. That meant we must return with him to Eugene. The hospital staff had never once mentioned money since we had paid $20 for Zeke’s admission. 

“We’ll have to bill you for his 30-day stay,” they said. “Will you be able to pay that?” they asked hesitantly.

“We have insurance,” we said, “and yes, we’ll pay whatever you need to charge.”

“But the bill will be large,” they worried.

“It’s OK. We’ll pay.”

The bill was $3,000. Zeke had received the same care any Yugoslav would have received for free.

Civilization to U.S. senators. Calling: Civilization to U.S. senators.


Mary O’Brien has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She is currently dividing her time between Eugene and Castle Valley, Utah.



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