Caregiving can be a Waiting Game

Highland Hospital, Oakland, California
It’s been 2 years since our son-in-law Charles, then age 49, was diagnosed with stage 4 rectal cancer. We were lucky he qualified for Medi-Cal because he didn’t have health insurance. 

Being a Medi-Cal patient meant that he had to seek treatment at the nearest “safety net” hospital, which turned out to be Highland Hospital in East Oakland. 

Highland Hospital is the location of the award-winning documentary film, “The Waiting Room,” which was released in 2012 and is still showing at theaters in the U.S. and Canada. 

Every day, an average of 250 new patients, most of them uninsured, pour into Highland where they are told to take a number and wait to be called. 

When there is an influx of trauma patients, which happens often mostly due to Oakland’s high rate of gun violence, the waiting time can stretch into hours and hours and hours.

Still, Charles has received extraordinarily good care at Highland. His oncologist, Dr. Stephen Yee, M.D., is one of the world’s best. The saintly staffers in the cancer center where Charles goes for chemotherapy every other week are amazingly cheerful and supportive–especially so, considering the drab, windowless environment.

My wife, Jackie, has gone with Charles to every single chemo appointment where she sits next to him and reads. There are short sessions of only a couple hours and long sessions which can last six hours. 

Getting meds at Highland is logistically challenging as you have to physically pick up the prescriptions from Dr. Yee’s office and delivery them by hand to the pharmacy. At the pharmacy they tell you the prescription will be ready in a few hours or the following day. And, by the way, the pharmacy is closed on weekends.

Jackie makes sure Charles gets his meds, takes them as prescribed, and keeps track of them so they don’t wind up scattered all around his apartment. Jackie does a million other things, too, and she can’t wait for Unfrazzle to be released. 

Our biggest complaint about Highland Hospital isn’t the waiting, or the flux of humanity, the shortage of staff, or lack of modern technology…it’s the parking. Parking at Highland can be very challenging, especially when the parking garage is full, which seems to happen any time past 10 a.m.  For this reason, I often drive Jackie to Highland and drop her off so she can run inside to pick up a prescription. I drive around the block for 20 minutes and then take her back home. The whole trip takes about 90 minutes. 

The story of Charles and his care is complicated, sometimes sad, but there have been some happy moments as well. Over time, I’m planning to tell more of this story, so please stay tuned. 

Read The New York Times review of “The Waiting Room” here.

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