Just when you think things could not get more f*cked up for undocumented immigrants in this country comes a story in The New York Times about hospitals "privately repatriating" disabled immigrants desperate for medical and rehabilitative help. The Sunday August 3, 2008 issue of The New York Times is carrying a story entitled "Immigrants Facing Deportation by U.S. Hospitals," by reporter Deborah Sontag. The story relates the heart-wrenching ordeal of being an undocumented immigrant with disabling injuries. Here are some excerpts:
High in the hills of Guatemala, shut inside the one-room house where he spends day and night on a twin bed beneath a seriously outdated calendar, Luis Alberto Jiménez has no idea of the legal battle that swirls around him in the lowlands of Florida.
Shooing away flies and beaming at the tiny, toothless elderly mother who is his sole caregiver, Mr. Jiménez, a knit cap pulled tightly on his head, remains cheerily oblivious that he has come to represent the collision of two deeply flawed American systems, immigration and health care.
Eight years ago, Mr. Jiménez, 35, an illegal immigrant working as a gardener in Stuart, Fla., suffered devastating injuries in a car crash with a drunken Floridian. A community hospital saved his life, twice, and, after failing to find a rehabilitation center willing to accept an uninsured patient, kept him as a ward for years at a cost of $1.5 million.
What happened next set the stage for a continuing legal battle with nationwide repercussions: Mr. Jiménez was deported — not by the federal government but by the hospital, Martin Memorial. After winning a state court order that would later be declared invalid, Martin Memorial leased an air ambulance for $30,000 and “forcibly returned him to his home country,” as one hospital administrator described it.
Since being hoisted in his wheelchair up a steep slope to his remote home, Mr. Jiménez, who sustained a severe traumatic brain injury, has received no medical care or medication — just Alka-Seltzer and prayer, his 72-year-old mother said. Over the last year, his condition has deteriorated with routine violent seizures, each characterized by a fall, protracted convulsions, a loud gurgling, the vomiting of blood and, finally, a collapse into unconsciousness.
“Every time, he loses a little more of himself,” his mother, Petrona Gervacio Gaspar, said in Kanjobal, the Indian dialect that she speaks with an otherworldly squeak.
American immigration authorities play no role in these private repatriations, carried out by ambulance, air ambulance and commercial plane. Most hospitals say that they do not conduct cross-border transfers until patients are medically stable and that they arrange to deliver them into a physician’s care in their homeland. But the hospitals are operating in a void, without governmental assistance or oversight, leaving ample room for legal and ethical transgressions on both sides of the border.
Indeed, some advocates for immigrants see these repatriations as a kind of international patient dumping, with ambulances taking patients in the wrong direction, away from first-world hospitals to less-adequate care, if any.
“Repatriation is pretty much a death sentence in some of these cases,” said Dr. Steven Larson, an expert on migrant health and an emergency room physician at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “I’ve seen patients bundled onto the plane and out of the country, and once that person is out of sight, he’s out of mind.”
I wish I could cast a stone here, but the fact is that our medical system is so inadequate that it barely serves the needs of its own, never mind the poor immigrant unlucky enough to suffer a griveous injury in this country. Some things just boggle the mind.