The Death of Virginia

Consider this shocking statistic, courtesy of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies:

Lack of health insurance causes roughly 18,000 unnecessary deaths every year in the United States.

Let’s think closely about that number. In their best year, terrorists killed 3,000 of us. It caused a national paroxysm that continues today. Surely the death of 18,000 people per year is a tragedy of greater proportion?

But perhaps 18,000 is too large a number to be meaningful. Perhaps one is better, so consider the story of Virginia Heineman.

Chronically ill, and as a result chronically underemployed, Ginnie was one of those people who lived on society’s margins. The medical details of Ginnie’s death remain somewhat murky, but she was found in a rocking chair in her California desert home surrounded by used-up asthma inhalers. For much of the time that I knew her, she struggled to breathe, and it seems almost certain that that struggle is what finally killed her. She also struggled to find health care, drifting in and out of the system of hospital emergency rooms and unpaid bills that is the fate of the uninsured ill.

Although America leads the world in spending on health care, it is the only wealthy, industrialized nation that does not ensure that all citizens have coverage.

It is reasonable to think that if Ginnie – my wife Lissa’s beloved sister – had access to consistent health care, she would be alive today, and would be a productive member of society. We miss her very much.


  1. Great commentary. I hadn’t seen that statistic. But it should be a wake up call for most Americans. I’m sorry for your wife’s family that we, as Americans, can’t seem to make this happen.

  2. My grandma’s HMO nixed her doctor’s recommendation that she get an X-Ray when she complained of a pain in her side. The HMO accountant told her it had decided it was just an “age related pain” and not to worry. 1 year later my aunt, who is a radiologist noticed her wince as she stood up, and smuggled her in for an X-Ray. She showed it to a doctor friend who thought he was looking at an autopsy and immediately declared her terminal. The pain was a malignant tumor that by the time my aunt detected it, had spread to her adrenal glands, lungs, and brain. Her lungs were so full of tumors the doctor did not believe she was capable of breathing unassisted. She died in agony a year later.
    I support Free, Universal preventative and diagnostic healthcare and can’t understand those who don’t.
    My father’s diabetes is considered a “pre-existing condition” and precludes his obtaining health insurance unless it is through an employer. When he was laid off and unemployed for a year, his medication costs were astounding, and my parent’s retirement savings rapidly dwindled until he found work. I support a single payer system for medications.
    I could quote statistics that prove America has the world’s most expensive health care system, yet receives very poor quality of life (life expectancy, infant mortality, etc.) compared to other industrialized nations. That rarely persuades anyone. My personal anecdotes also rarely persuade anyone.
    What I’d like to be able to tell people is how much more the average person pays for healthcare because a poor person’s untreated, preventable condition becomes critical and they go to the emergency room. I just don’t know where to find that number, or those like it.

Comments are closed.