Troupe’s Plays Tell Tales Of Health Care Today All The Health Care World’s A Stage
By ANNE VANDERMEY | Courant Staff Writer
July 11, 2008
Clarice Hurdle got very, very thirsty one evening three years ago.
For a diabetic, that's often a bad sign.
Soon afterward, she experienced near blackout dizziness. Then her stomach became violently upset.
Hurdle went straight to her clinic, but by then, her condition was too severe for them to treat. Her blood sugar levels had reached 500 — five times the normal amount.
This situation would be difficult for anyone, but for the Waterbury resident, who didn't have health insurance at the time, there were added complications.
A few days into her recovery, a medical resident came into her hospital room about 1 a.m. and woke her up by shining a flashlight in her face, Hurdle recalled. The resident asked if she had any relatives who might be able to foot the bill for her hospital stay. She didn't.
"Ms. Hurdle," the resident said, "we're going to have to send you home as soon as possible. The hospital can't afford to keep you here because you can't afford to pay."
If the story sounds dramatic enough to be put onstage, it is. Hurdle's medical nightmare forms the plot in one of a series of plays to be performed this month, starting this weekend, by Hartbeat Ensemble, a socially conscious theater troupe based in Hartford. The play is one of eight, 10-minute dramas about the pitfalls of the state's health system, Hartbeat's annual "Plays in the Parks" production.
And though each is altered — Hurdle's name changed and the resident got meaner — they're all based on interviews with Connecticut residents.
"We use ordinary stories. For example, there are hundreds of thousands of people that are just waiting for Medicare to kick in before they get treatment," said Steve Ginsberg, one of Hartbeat's founders. "It's an ordinary story, but we can find ways to make that dramatic — to make people sit back and say, 'Wait a minute, this is the way our system is, and it's ridiculous.'"
The plays themselves are far from ordinary, however. In one, a woman who can't afford a doctor's visit tries to delay seeking medical advice about a giant tumor growing on her shoulder. Eventually the tumor becomes so developed it breaks into a song-and-dance routine.
In another, an insurance company executive takes advice from greedy, sock-puppet demons.
In a more subdued play about small business, the plot is borrowed from Woodstock resident Sue Morissette, a potter. With a bad knee that needs surgery, Morissette, 61, is stuck in health care limbo — too old for affordable private insurance and too young to qualify for Medicare. In the meantime, she's trying to favor her good knee as she carries her pottery to and from the kiln.
"I thought about giving it up, but it's my passion," she said. "I just love being an artist. I love what I do. I'm not ready for a wheelchair or a nursing home yet."
The cracks in the system don't just affect the underinsured. Dr. Bruce Gould, medical director at the Burgdorf Health Center in Hartford, said trying to navigate patients through insurance claims is taking a toll on his clinic. He might able to sympathize with the idealistic insurance worker in the Hartbeat production, who laments the corruption of the medical profession.
Never mind the fact that that character spends a lot of her time singing. It's a light vehicle for a heavy message.
"As physicians we've all taken the same oath, but I think people forget," Gould said. "And I guess economics trumps Hippocrates."
Or, as the talking tumor put it, "Doctor, doctor, he ain't got nothing for you but exclusionary treatment."
The interviews that inspired the plays were provided by the Universal Healthcare Foundation of Connecticut, a nonprofit group.
Clarice Hurdle wasn't kicked out of the hospital. She stayed until she recovered, and the government helped her meet some of the costs she incurred. At 66, she's now eligible for Medicare, and though just one month ago she couldn't buy eyeglasses because she didn't have the cash, she now has enough money for daily doses of insulin.
About 362,000 people in the state are uninsured, according to the 2006 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, and for them, as with Hurdle, it can be a long wait for Medicare.
In the last scene of "Shady Cove," a mental health care worker proclaims that she won't stand for it any longer. Standing on a colored block that might as well have been a soapbox, she cried, "I'm going to go somewhere where I can fix things."
The actress, Julia Rosenblatt, said that character, too, is based on an real woman.
"I'll write a book," Rosenblatt's character shouts. "An exposé of mental health care today. I can chronicle the changes since commercial health care took over. It'll be searing. Maybe it'll even be adapted for the stage."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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