I don't know what kind of medical insurance that Joaquin Rivera -- who was the bedrock of Philadelphia's Puerto Rican community -- had, but that's not really the issue here. The outrageous circumstances of Rivera's death last weekend in a hospital emergency room should be a reminder to everyone that the real reasons so many people in America have been pushing for an overhaul of healthcare in the country for so long. Because the reason we need a new way of doing things isn't only because far too many people are uninsured, although there is that. It's that one of the wealthiest nations on earth has a system that treats millions of its citizens -- solid, God-fearing people like Joaquin Rivera -- like cattle.
Because no one should ever have to die like this in America:
According to police, Rivera walked into Aria Health's Frankford Campus, on Frankford Avenue near Harrison Street, about 10:45 p.m. Saturday.
He was alone, and apparently had walked from his nearby home on Duffield Street near Foulkrod, his son said.
Rivera complained of feeling pain in his left arm and abdomen, and was told to sit in the waiting area, said police spokesman Lt. Frank Vanore.
At some point during the next hour, Rivera, a longtime bilingual counselor at Olney High School, lost consciousness.
Joaquin Rivera was dying -- right there in a hospital emergency room, a stone's throw from doctors and nurses who could have tried to save him. And then while he was ignored, unconscious and losing life, something else happened to him that was so outrageous that it turned Rivera's passing into a local news story: Three heartless bastards stole the watch off the dying man, right there in the waiting room:
He inadvertently became a target, Vanore said, to three other people in the waiting room - a black woman, a 30-something, 5-foot-8 black man in dark pants who limped, and a second man, who was later arrested at the hospital and identified as Richard Alten, 44.
If the charges stick, then Alten and his low-life scum accomplices deserve to have the book thrown at them. But we should also keep our eye on the big picture, which is that a 63-year-old man who walks into a hospital emergency room complaining of chest pains shouldn't be told to sit down and wait, unmonitored, for more than an hour. And yet this is what medical care is like for millions of Americans, especially someone who lives in an urban area like Rivera did. Although as a school district employee it's highly likely that Rivera personally had decent insurance coverage, he was forced to wait in a room that most likely was filled with people, many of whom were not covered, who pack an ER on a Saturday night as their last and only resort to medical treatment.
You know, I listen to a lot of talk radio and the other places where people are talking healthcare reform a lot of the time these days, and these conversations, quite frankly, tend to be dominated by affluent suburbanites who have decent health coverage -- as long as they're not laid off, anyway -- and access to state-of-the-art hospitals in safe communities, people who can't understand why there is a push for changing things in the country. And there are people like Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina who thinks that just showing up at the hospital is a perfectly fine way of receiving healthcare.No one is speaking loudly enough for the Joaquin Riveras.
There's also a sense in this one-sided debate that Americans who receive inadequate care or who somehow bring this upon themselves deserve their plight. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rivera was clearly a man who gave so much to his community -- a cherished musician and a mentor to youth.
In 1964, Joaquin moved to Philadelphia from the mountain town of Cayey, Puerto Rico. He started out working in a factory that made laminated fabric, took English courses at night and began studying for his GED.
He also took courses at Community College of Philadelphia and Rutgers University. He then went to work at Olney High as a bilingual counselor. He worked for the school district for more than 30 years.
"He has made a difference here in Philadelphia," Roberto Santiago, executive director of Concilio, told the Daily News. "He comes to a new place, incorporates himself, contributes to the city, takes it upon himself to play folkloric music and brings it to the community."
He gave everything to his community, and his community was not there for him when he needed assistance, not his neighbors who ripped him off rather than calling for help, and not a healthcare system that couldn't help him when he showed up on its doorstep. Over the next couple of weeks, our representatives down in Washington are going to be debating and putting the finishing touches on the first but hopefully not final steps toward healthcare reform in this country. I hope that they're thinking about Joaquin Rivera every second of that debate.
Because no one should be allowed to die like this in America, ever again.