Across the nation, prisons aren’t exactly known for their cutting edge medical care. States have limited budgets for inmate medical care, and as a result local level medical staff are restricted in the amount and type of care they can provide. If asked, most inmates probably would cite medical care as a primary area of concern.
Throughout my incarceration, I’ve witnessed the highs and lows of medical care. There were times when you could receive the care you needed, no matter the issue, and times when you were lucky to receive care for something as serious as a heart attack. The waxing and waning has coincided with state budgets.
My first experience going to medical happened over the Winter of my first year of incarceration. The year was 1995. I had come down with a sore throat, and over the course of two weeks it worsened to the point where I could barely swallow. Back then medical care was free, in the sense that there was no co-pay. Nowadays there’s a co-pay that inmates must pay in order to receive medical care. I have a lot to say about the medical co-pay as it is a significant deterrent to many poor inmates from seeking medical help, but that’s another post.
When it became apparent my condition wasn’t improving, I signed up to go to medical. The general process back then involved filling out a standardized form and then awaiting your name to appear on a pass list. This process usually took 48 hours. Once you were ‘passed’ you then went to the medical department, signed in, and waited to be seen by a nurse.
A nurse then took your vitals and made a determination on whether or not you needed to see the doctor. If it was determined that your condition didn’t warrant a doctor’s attention, you were given aspirin or ibuprofen and told to go back to the cell block. Other times you were placed on a list and told to wait to be ‘passed’ to see the doctor. This process was similar to the one you went through to go to medical in the first place, except it could take more than a week after being examined by a nurse to be passed to see the doctor.
After examination by the nurse, I was told that I had “a few” white spots on the back of my throat, that they didn’t see any need for me to see the doctor as I was “probably” getting over the infection as it had been two weeks already. I was then handed a small plastic baggie with packets of double dose 325mg aspirin, and told to take them as needed. When I protested, arguing that I wasn’t getting better, I was told I didn’t know what I was talking about. The nurse then said, “Go back to your unit. If you’re not better in a week sign up to come back to medical.”
What!? Wait another week!? Several times while gowing up I’d had strep throat, and I was certain this was what I had then. The symptoms were identical. I felt like I did when I had strep as a kid, down to the white spots at the back of my throat. I protested some more and was told that if I didn’t go back to my unit I would be sent to the hole.
Gudgingly I went back to the unit. I took the aspirin as instructed and waited. The days passed and I became sicker and sicker. By the end of week three I could barely talk and the infection had also migrated down into my chest. I signed up for medical again. I saw the same nurse, explaining the best that I could that I needed help.
Instead of examining me the nurse accused me of exaggerating and faking difficulty talking and breathing. She then threatened me again with the hole if I didn’t leave and go back to the unit.
I refused to leave.
I demanded to see the Health Care Administrator (who oversees the medical department) and refused to leave until I did. It just so happened that as I was protesting, the doctor had come walking by and overheard my pleas. He stopped and examined me, which frankly, was fortuitous because the nurse had called for the Yard Dogs to take me away. The doctor was shocked at what he saw, and immediately swabbed my throat. Back then there was no instant test for strep, you had to culture it and send the culture to the lab. The doctor was so concerned that he immediately prescribed antibiotics and scheduled me for follow up in 3 days.
Over the next 48 hours I laid in bed sick. By day two I could tell I was starting to feel a bit better, and by day three I was certain the infection was receding. I saw the doctor again on that day and he had the test results back: streptococcus infection, or better known as strep-throat. I also had walking pneumonia. He then asked me why I had waited so long before coming to medical. When I told him I had come a week earlier and was sent away, he was incredulous.
Thankfully, times have changed. Class action lawsuits over the past 2 decades have triggered reform in the state’s handling of inmate medical care, and nowadays you receive immediate medical attention. Gone are the long waits to see a nurse or a doctor. You now see the doctor the very same day you are referred by a nurse.
Throughout my incarceration I’ve met doctors who didn’t know what they were doing, literally flipping through a physician’s home reference book while you explained what was wrong, and I’ve met some of the best doctors I’ve ever known. Doctors that I’d love to have as a personal family physician on the street if they had their own practice. I’ve watched doctors here save the lives of numerous men, diagnosing ailments that wouldn’t have been caught had it not been for the knowledge and competence of the medical staff.
Back when I began my sentence, getting sick meant you could conceivably die. Nowadays, however, correctional medical care in Ohio has caught up with the times. It’s in stark contrast to care in some states, where sickness still means potential death.
*If you enjoyed this post, please like and share with your friends. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing for you! Also, if you know of other blogs written by inmates, please let me know because I enjoy reading what other guys write. Frankly, it helps keep me sane.