Soon after Antonio Torres, a husky 19-year-old farmworker, suffered catastrophic injuries in a car accident last June, a Phoenix hospital began making plans for his repatriation to Mexico.
Mr. Torres was comatose and connected to a ventilator. He was also a legal immigrant whose family lives and works in the purple alfalfa fields of this southwestern town. But he was uninsured. So the hospital disregarded the strenuous objections of his grief-stricken parents and sent Mr. Torres on a four-hour journey over the California border into Mexicali.
For days, Mr. Torres languished in a busy emergency room there, but his parents, Jesús and Gloria Torres, were not about to give up on him. Although many uninsured immigrants have been repatriated by American hospitals, few have seen their journey take the U-turn that the Torreses engineered for their son. They found a hospital in California willing to treat him, loaded him into a donated ambulance and drove him back into the United States as a potentially deadly infection raged through his system.
By summer’s end, despite the grimmest of prognoses from the hospital in Phoenix, Mr. Torres had not only survived but thrived. Newly discharged from rehabilitation in California, he was haltingly walking, talking and, hoisting his cane to his shoulder like a rifle, performing a silent, comic, effortful imitation of a marching soldier.
“In Arizona, apparently, they see us as beasts of burden that can be dumped back over the border when we have outlived our usefulness,” the elder Mr. Torres, who is 47, said in Spanish. “But we outwitted them. We were not going to let our son die. And look at him now!”
Antonio Torres’s experience sharply illustrates the haphazard way in which the American health care system handles cases involving uninsured immigrants who are gravely injured or seriously ill. Whether these patients receive sustained care in this country or are privately deported by a hospital depends on what emergency room they initially visit.There is only limited federal financing for these fragile patients, and no governmental oversight of what happens to them. Instead, it is left to individual hospitals, many of whom see themselves as stranded at the crossroads of a failed immigration policy and a failed health care system, to cut through a thicket of financial, legal and ethical concerns.
While one can empathize to some degree with hospitals that do not have the funds to adequately care for patients with questionable legal status, knee-jerk deportations are certainly not the solution. While deportations may be necessary in some cases, they should clearly be a last resort and even then, only instituted by the proper legal authorities, not in an unregulated manner by hospitals. The problem is systemic, but it is one we should all be ashamed of.. Patients, legal or not, deserve better.