MAXWELL:  Our growing inhumanity

4/23/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


DISPATCHER: “911. Is this an emergency?”

BRUCE SILVERMAN: “Yes, it’s an emergency. I need an ambulance. I have a 3-year-old daughter that’s passed out on me.”

DISPATCHER: “Okay. Where do you need the ambulance?”

BRUCE SILVERMAN: “I’m in front of the emergency exit in Coral Springs Hospital.”

DISPATCHER: “You’re right in front of the emergency exit?”

BRUCE SILVERMAN: “Yes, that’s exactly where I am. And they won’t do a goddamn thing in this place.”

Silverman is the 30-year-old auto body shop manager who, on Feb. 12, rushed his daughter, Alexandra, to the emergency room of the Coral Springs Medical Center. The child was suffering from vomiting, dehydration and diarrhea.

The 911 dispatcher dialed the emergency room:

DISPATCHER: “There’s a guy that says he’s right outside your emergency exit. And he needs an ambulance. He said his 2-year-old daughter is dehydrated.”

EMERGENCY ROOM WORKER: “This is a guy who wants to be seen quicker. We’re busy. So he figured if he called 911, he’d be seen quicker.”

DISPATCHER: “Well, he’s saying that he needs an ambulance right away. Is somebody going to go out there or not?”

EMERGENCY ROOM WORKER: “There’s nothing we can do.”

On the advice of the 911 dispatcher, a Coral Springs police officer drove to the hospital. A few hours later, Alexandra was admitted and placed on antibiotics and an IV.

Before sunrise, however, doctors had declared her brain-dead. Three days later, after life-support systems were removed, the little girl with the sweet face, the big brown eyes and the warm smile, was dead. Now, lawyers, strangers and the relentless wheels of an uncaring bureaucracy are soiling the memory of Alexandra’s short life.

This scenario, along with Silverman’s words _ “They won’t do a goddamn thing in this place,” has replayed itself in my mind many times since I first heard it recently on a nightly newscast. Alexandra’s treatment, along with that of dozens of other examples elsewhere, underscores the vast reach of this country’s growing inhumanity.

But nothing captures the cruelty at the heart of Alexandra’s death more poignantly than the clinical words of Jason Moore, the hospital administrator: “While we can sympathize with the Silvermans’ grief and express our heartfelt condolences, we are still of the opinion that our hospital treated their child appropriately and did nothing to cause the unfortunate death of their daughter.”

Alexandra was not treated appropriately. This innocent child, a mere month away from her third birthday, did not have to die.

I am not questioning the motives of the Almighty, as Brother Juniper does in Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Brother Juniper is a Franciscan friar who wonders whether the collapse of a bridge in Peru in 1714 that kills five travelers was an accident or a deliberate plan of God. Each time I hear of a tragic death, I am reminded of his query.

In Alexandra’s case, I am convinced her death has nothing to do with providence. It is the indirect result of what America has become, the result of our growing callousness toward the well-being _ and the very lives _ of others.

Busy schedules, heavy workloads and financial strains aside, we have become a nation of insensitive, arrogant pseudo-individualists who would tell the frightened father of a sick child: “There’s nothing we can do.”

As conservatism takes root and spreads, our insensitivity and arrogance deepen. By its very nature, contemporary conservatism is cold and punitive.

In the name of saving a buck, for example, we deny health insurance and care to whole classes of people. To save a buck, we take shortcuts in providing health care _ risking the lives of patients. To save a buck, we throw people out of work. To save a buck, we pollute the environment and destroy our wetlands. To save a buck, we shut down day-care centers. To save a buck, we refuse to buy textbooks for our children.

Only a very thin line separates today’s retooled social Darwinism from social barbarism. If you listen to the 1990s’ muscular rhetoric, you can hear its meanness, its class and race consciousness, its creeping misanthropy. No amount of subterfuge, pretending to care about the state of the Union, can hide our growing contempt for those different from ourselves.

Coral Springs Medical Center’s behavior is par for the course in today’s climate. If you click on the news, you can hear U.S. House members comparing single mothers on welfare to alligators and lower primates. Shall we mention talk radio? Harshness is everywhere; it has become normal _ even chic. It pervades every corner of our lives.

The ugly spirit displayed on the 911 tape is common in our dealings with one another. If we do not regain some semblance of our old compassion, more young children, like Alexandra Silverman, will be turned away and denied the “milk of human kindness.” And we will hear more Bruce Silvermans saying of the institutions in which we place our trust, even our lives: “They won’t do a goddamn thing in this place.”

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.