It’s not just that life expectancy in Mississippi (71.9) now appears to be a hair shorter than in Bangladesh (72.4). Nor that an infant is some 70 percent more likely to die in the United States than in other wealthy countries.
All that is tragic and infuriating, but to me the most heart-rending symbol of America’s failure in health care is the avoidable amputations that result from poorly managed diabetes.
A medical setting cannot hide the violence of a saw cutting through a leg or muffle the grating noise it makes as it hacks through the tibia or disguise the distinctive charred odor of cauterized blood vessels. That noise of a saw on bone is a rebuke to an American health care system that, as Walter Cronkite reportedly observed, is neither healthy, caring nor a system.
Dr. Raymond Girnys, a surgeon who has amputated countless limbs here in the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest and least healthy parts of America, told me that he has nightmares of “being chased by amputated legs and toes.”
“It starts from the bottom up,” Dr. Girnys said, explaining how patients arrive with diabetic wounds on the foot that refuse to heal in part because of diminished circulation when blood sugar is not meticulously managed in a person with diabetes. Dr. Girnys initially tries to clean and treat the lesions, but they grow deeper, until he has to remove a toe.
When more wounds develop, he takes off the foot in the hope of saving the rest of the leg. New wounds can force him to amputate the leg below the knee and perhaps, finally, above the knee. After that, Dr. Girnys said, the patient is likely to die within five years.
A toe, foot or leg is cut off by a doctor about 150,000 times a year in America, making the United States a world leader of these amputations.
I’ll be blunt: America’s dismal health care outcomes are a disgrace. They shame us. Partly because of diabetes and other preventable conditions, Americans suffer unnecessarily and often die young. It is unconscionable that newborns in India, Rwanda and Venezuela have a longer life expectancy than Native American newborns (65) in the United States. And Native American males have a life expectancy of just 61.5 years — shorter than the overall life expectancy in Haiti. [Continue reading…]