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Life Flight in the air, and a public health crisis on the ground

The top administrator and CEO at Cook County North Shore Hospital and Care Center said she and the head of housekeeping at the hospital are now also driving ambulances to 911 calls.

Α helicopter flies over and along the North Shore of Lake Superior. The sound of the rotor blades evokes both melancholy and pause.

Life Flight.

When Life Flight is in the air, it’s hard not to wake. No matter the time day or night, each and every time, a friend who lives 600 feet from me in a certified wildlife habitat, texts me to say: “Throwing some prayers up.”

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The scissor-like pulse of the rotor blades resonates and reverberates through the community’s air and our hearts. Chances are, you see, we know the person — or the family of the person — being rushed to Duluth for medical care. This sound is difficult to ignore as this is a peaceful place where the noise of car traffic and police sirens are thankfully supplanted by the orchestra of beavers building on The Baptism, wolves howling on The Gunflint, Whip-poor-wills singing along the Big Lake and Sand Cranes banking majestically over Good Harbor Hill.

But there is another sound that frequently disrupts the northern skies in the summer months. CEOs, CFOs and senators from all over the United States descend on the Grand Marais landing strip in their private helicopters and Rent-a-Jets to vacation here in their second, third, fourth…homes. Most have concierge health care or can airlift out on a phone call. For other, and less thans, it is a very different American health care reality.

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To illustrate how dangerous the public health crisis in the United States has become, we need not reference statistics of philanthropic foundations, nonpartisan think tanks, data reporting, academic institutions, peer-reviewed medical studies or statistical analysis by universities. We need only look to the public testimony of two Cook County, Minnesota, public health and safety leaders.

Within weeks of one another, Kimber Wraalstad, the top administrator and CEO at Cook County North Shore Hospital and Care Center, and Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen have both publicly stated on the public record that the public health and safety crisis is dire. Wraalstad said she and the head of housekeeping at the hospital are now also driving ambulances to 911 calls.

Eliasen stated that he is unable to retain a deputy sheriff because of the affordable housing crisis and other factors. He also stated on the record that the number of assaults in the county has increased in the last year.  Elisason met with the Cook County commissioners last week to amplify his concerns about public health and safety.

The sound of the Life Flight helicopter summons audio memory as strong as the olfactory sense. It embodies the best and the worst of the United States. The rotor blades slicing through the sometimes-ferocious Lake Superior weather systems trigger images of military medics descending into a combat zone to save a soldier’s life, or network news helicopters covering a mass shooting from high above a school. It sounds like National Guard and rescue teams flying into climate disasters to help people who are fleeing their burning communities or flooding neighborhoods. It sounds like the law enforcement helicopters high above Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, New York and other burning cities after May 26, 2020, or Ski Patrol going to dig people out of an Avalanche.

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Help is on the way, helicopters say.

To me, those rotor blades slicing through the air sound like a stop watch. Or, a ticking bomb. Minutes and seconds make a difference to the good, ethical, well-intentioned people who are doing everything they can in that helicopter to save just one person’s life against all odds.

Only 276.2 miles away from the North Shore is the headquarters of UnitedHealth Group, one of the wealthiest commercial health insurance companies — companies — in the world. It is difficult to find anyone in the state who doesn’t work for United or Optum or rely upon someone who is employed by the company. Despite the current state of the economy and inflation, commercial health insurance premiums and deductibles for individuals and business owners will increase again in 2023. Just last week, UnitedHealth Group’s profits exceeded $5 billion and its net income increased to $5.2 billion compared to $4.27 billion in the second quarter of 2021.

Can the UnitedHealth board room and Minnesota senators hear the fatigue of understaffed and overworked nurses, physicians and health care administration workers here? They are a stellar group of people who, have — astonishingly, impressively — with few resources and limited human capital, managed to keep the number of deaths caused by COVID to four persons since the start of the pandemic.

They were all granted 45 days to apply for their minuscule “hero pay”— up to $750 each.

All the while, commercial health insurance company executives — many of whom reside on Lake Minnetonka — landscape their properties on Ferndale Road and tie off their yachts in Wayzata while the Maccallan Lalique flows without end. That is their American reality.

Kimberly J. Soenen
Kimberly J. Soenen
The rotor blades slicing through the northern summer sky mean another person is being triaged to the ICU in Duluth. A pregnant woman who can no longer deliver a baby here; an elderly Ojibwe resident who has been priced out of her home and can’t afford Medicare Advantage; a developmentally disabled adult male with third-degree burns from a wood burning stove accident; a person who became ill while hiking in the Boundary Waters; a tourist who was injured while camping; someone who fell.

Decades before the global COVID-19 pandemic hit our horrifically unprepared country, public health was severely damaged by hospital budget cuts, cuts to staffing, cuts to nurse-to-patient ratios, cuts in health insurance coverage, and other mechanisms veiled as “efficiencies” and “savings” that shift profits to shareholders and resources away from The Patient.

When I hear Life Flight now, as an American citizen, all I hear in those rotor blades is death by a thousand cuts.

Kimberly J. Soenen lives in Chicago and Grand Marais, Minnesota. She is the founder, executive producer and curator of “SOME PEOPLE” (Every)Body.