January 3, 2010

Best health care in the world

MAYNARDVILLE, Tenn. – The two-hour drive is done, but Hannah and Jack Hurst leave the Honda's engine running.

Hannah's prayers have brought them here. Now there's little to do but turn up the car's heat, try to get some sleep and wait for morning — and a set of glass and metal doors to open.

Still, Hannah doesn't complain. The 26-year-old mother of three has waited "pretty much as long as I can remember" to escape the pain throbbing through her jaws. Jack lost his road construction job a year ago and health insurance is out of the question. If the answer to Hannah's misery can be found behind those doors, then what's 10 hours more?

Out in the dark, the Hursts have plenty of company. Even before 10 p.m. on Friday in late fall, nearly 50 cars ring the ball field parking lot. By 6 a.m. Saturday, more than 400 men and women — some wrapped in blankets, others leaning on walkers — stand tightlipped and bleary-eyed under the Big Dipper.

They clutch numbered tickets, ready to claim the prize for perseverance: By day's end, as long as they can keep appetites and tempers in check and the sleep from their eyes, they will win the privilege of care from a dentist or a doctor.

In a country convulsed over health care, the scene would be alarming if it wasn't so predictable.

In fact, it's always the same, Stan Brock says. For 17 years, Brock has piloted a nonprofit called Remote Area Medical around the country, commandeering high school gyms and county fairgrounds to offer free health care to the uninsured, the underinsured and the desperate.

Brock has seen so many crowds like the one massed outside Union County High School this dawn he chides himself for losing track of whether this is RAM's 578th expedition or its 587th (it's the latter). And yet in every one of those seemingly identical crowds there are hundreds of Hannah Hursts, each a unique testament to the nation's ragged pursuit of health care answers.

Over the next two days, RAM's volunteers will examine, test, anesthetize, extract and prescribe hundreds of solutions for individual aches and afflictions. They will, in the few moments left, try to convince patients they'll probably never see again of the virtues of healthier living and continuous care. They will do their best to answer Hannah Hurst's prayers. ...

--Adam Geller, AP National Writer – Sat Jan 2, 2010
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