Michael Yanul died last week, and I can’t help but think we killed him.
That’s “we” as in the people of Cook County.
For a half-penny on every dollar spent at a store, he might still be alive.
Yanul, 58, a victim of muscular dystrophy, lived at Oak Forest Hospital for 17 years. He couldn’t move, eat or even breathe on his own.
About three weeks ago, he was forced to move to a nursing home because Cook County, which owned and operated Oak Forest Hospital, decided it could no longer afford to keep the hospital open.
I first wrote about Yanul in January, as Cook County was preparing to close the hospital, and he and other long-term patients were literally fighting for their lives.
“All the talk about closing this hospital down has been about money,” Yanul told me. “But there’s a human cost to closing this hospital. Nobody talks about that.”
He was convinced that without the 24-hour nursing care provided by a hospital, he would likely die.
Although he could do nothing for himself, he could still think. His brain was sharp. His voice, despite a tracheotomy, was quite clear.
“They keep me living,” he said about the doctors and nurses at Oak Forest Hospital.
“I will never get that kind of care in a nursing home.”
His brother, Thomas, of Oak Lawn, said Yanul was sent from his nursing home to a hospital last week and diagnosed with double pneumonia and sepsis and was in diabetic shock.
“He wasn’t even a diabetic, so I don’t understand that,” Thomas Yanul said. “I do know the beds at his nursing home could not be moved up and down electronically The bed he was in, the mattress was so sunken in, that my brother couldn’t even breathe. We had to pile pillows and things underneath his back.
“Do I think he would still be living if he had been at Oak Forest Hospital? I think it is likely.”
When Toni Preckwinkle campaigned last year for Cook County Board president, she promised to roll back a very unpopular one-cent sales tax hike passed in 2008 during Todd Stroger’s administration.
Prior to the February 2010 primary election, the Cook County Board voted to repeal half of that tax increase, and Preckwinkle has promised to eventually eliminate the remaining half.
The money raised by that half-cent sales tax, about $180 million, could have easily kept Oak Forest Hospital open, but reformers had already made plans to trim the budget of the Cook County Health and Hospital System by eliminating the hospital.
The hospital budget had been bloated with patronage employees, the critics said. It wasn’t the best way to spend dwindling health care funds to help the poor, the reformers claimed.
Michael Yanul’s life didn’t matter.
It didn’t matter to angry taxpayers. It didn’t matter to the people running the health care system in Cook County.
I would contend that Yanul died because of the patronage system and political corruption in Cook County.
But I can’t help thinking we, the voters, are responsible in some way.
We are open to arguments that the government wastes our tax money because there is a vast amount of evidence that it’s true.
Yet we also know the government provides many valuable services. The long-term care and ventilator units at Oak Forest Hospital were among those.
Every patient I spoke to there testified to that fact. It was the sort of care that only the wealthiest of Americans can afford.
Nursing homes are where the rest of us end up when we are chronically ill. And even the best of them do not provide the kind of care patients receive in a hospital. It is just too costly.
Yanul knew he was likely being handed a death sentence back in January.
He was a courageous fellow. He didn’t complain about his plight. He was grateful for the years he spent at Oak Forest, where he could do little more than lie in bed and breathe.
He didn’t understand why people didn’t want to spend a half-penny on the dollar to keep a fellow human being alive.
But the argument for cutting Cook County’s sales tax was never framed in that manner.
It was about cutting waste.
Michael Yanul was a casualty of cutting the fat out of government.