Saunders: The price of medical care vs. the value of hospital goodwill

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJune 29, 2014 

There’s a good chance the guy coming after me with the knife and demanding money is still looking for me.

That’s why I hit the bricks and didn’t look back.

The guy with the knife was an emergency room doctor in an Indiana hospital, and he was trying to save my life, not take it. I saved it myself, though, and didn’t feel I owed him anything. He felt differently.

Remember last week when I asked you if Leo Nieves and his wife, Angela, should have to pay Vidant Edgecombe Hospital in Tarboro for delivering their baby, since Angela delivered it herself in their speeding van on the way to the hospital?

That case reminded me of the time I almost died ignominiously, choking on a pig ear sammitch. Yes, sammitch. Look, when it’s made from any kind of ear, it’s not a sandwich.

A fellow reporter at the Post-Tribune newspaper in Gary, Ind., was working on a story on soul food restaurants and returned to the office with an extra pig ear sammitch, so as I was wont to do in those days, I ate it. As pig ear sammitches are wont to do, a piece of the gristle got stuck in my throat, making breathing difficult.

My co-worker tried the Heimlich maneuver, which moved the gristle, but only to a less convenient, more restricting spot in my throat. That’s probably why, when I called Methodist Hospital’s emergency room, the first thing the nurse said was, “Whatever you do, don’t try the Heimlich maneuver.”


No dignified headline

We sped to the hospital a few blocks away, with me imagining what type of inglorious obit would appear in the next day’s paper. Having been an obituary writer early in my newspaper career, I knew there was no dignified way to write a story whose headline read “Reporter Croaks on Pig’s Ear.”

Oink. The ER staff was amused by my distress, especially when I rasped to the doctor, “Please, don’t let me die with a pig ear stuck in my throat.”

What he said next was meant to be comforting, but it wasn’t. “Aw, we get people with pig ears stuck in their throats all the time.”

You do?

He peered in, saw the obstruction and left. He returned with a scalpel. That’s when I panicked and, imagining him Jack the Rippering my throat to get the ear out, punched myself in the chest as hard as I could. The piece of pig ear dislodged and shot out like a projectile, which the doctor ducked to avoid.

That’s when I left, with the doctor and nurse following and asking where they should send the bill.

No hablo Ingles, Sawbones.

I didn’t see anything they did to warrant payment, just as most of you who responded didn’t see anything Vidant Edgecombe did to warrant full payment from the Nieveses.

A reader named Christine wrote, “Yes, it seems to me the hospital would charge for delivery services actually performed. However, it should be a less expensive bill, as she wasn’t admitted until the baby had arrived.”

‘Community relations’

A reader named Beth, who said she “laughed aloud when Leo shared how they were yelling back and forth” while preparing to rush to the hospital in those early morning hours, wrote, “No, the hospital should not charge for the delivery, but knowing our healthcare system, they’ll probably get a $5,000 bill for cutting the umbilical cord.”

You missed it by $3,000, Beth. Leo Nieves told me he received a bill for $8,000 – pre-insurance – just for the baby. The bill for Angela had yet to arrive, he said last week. Hmm. That may be why the hospital never returned any of my calls to inquire if they were going to charge the couple or swallow the charge like a piece of sauteed pig ear.

Not doing so is a bad move by the hospital, I’d say. So does a reader named Bill Mercer from Jacksonville, who wrote, “They should not charge for the delivery as a goodwill gesture, considering the circumstances. Community relations can be of much more value than a one-time charge and this sequence of events certainly qualifies.”

Right on. Nobody should think badly of the hospital for charging – after all, it’s a for-profit operation and the Nieveses never expected not to have to pay – but man, not charging would’ve netted much more than $8,000 in goodwill.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or

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