Healthcare / news / Opinion / Society

The Price of Not Looking “American”

Maybe it’s because my own mother is losing her mind to the same wicked disease, but I just read a story about an old lady that just broke my heart.

As the story goes, back in 1994, a mute elderly woman was found wondering a mall in New Jersey. When the police picked her up, she didn’t have any identification on her person, and in addition to being mute, she was found to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. For 15 years all attempts to identify her returned nothing. Not fingerprinting, not police investigation, not photo circulation…nothing could yield her identity. So where would you suppose she was kept for all 15 years? Not in a nursing home, as you would suspect counting her condition. The poor sick old lady (always well dressed according to witnesses) was sent to live in a psychiatric hospital. Yes, that is right, among mentally diseased individuals. Don’t get me wrong, Alzheimer is also a mental disease, but there is a difference between it and psychotic.

And why did this poor lady have to spend 15 years in a psych ward instead of a clean nursing home where she could receive treatment and services that might have helped her clinch to her slipping mind? Because they couldn’t prove she was a legal resident of the United States. Because they couldn’t prove she was a legal resident of the United States? Yep, because they couldn’t prove she was a legal resident of the United States. Because apparently according to Medicare only poor US citizens deserve the care nursing homes provide.

I can go in a rant here about how ALL workers pay into Medicare (and all the other taxes we pay without representation) regardless of legal status, but I won’t. You already know this.

This poor lady, whom it turned out, had been in this country since 1969, worked hard every day taking care of her daughter. This church going, good and caring lady, who had given all to this country, was abandoned to a psych ward just because she didn’t have the outward appearance of an “American citizen”. Yes I said outward appearance. Why wasn’t it assumed she was a US citizen until proven otherwise? Because she looked South American, that’s why. I don’t know the legal intricacies of placing a person in a nursing home, but I doubt very much a European looking lady in similar situation would have ended up in a psychiatric hospital when a nursing home was where she needed to be.

It seems my view of America is suffering from a bad case of schizophrenia. One day I’m proud to say my children have inherited a great nation; a nation whose heart has the capacity to judge a man by the content of his character and elect as president a son of an immigrant who wears the same skin as those held in bondage not so very long ago. Then I wake up to find out a sick old lady can spend 15 years in a psychiatric hospital just because she didn’t have a damn passport.

Elba Leonor Diaz Soccarras (Jane Doe, 1994-2009)


6 thoughts on “The Price of Not Looking “American”

  1. @Northern Kenya…I know what you mean. That is exactly what I asked myself. She did have a daughter she was estranged from. According to the daughter, she and her mom had a fallout and she thought her mother had moved back to Columbia. But I know what you mean….I don’t care what you thought, 15 years not finding out where or how you mom is doing, is wrong anyway you look at it.

  2. Racial profiling is never a good thing. However, in this particular example, government bureaucracy and profiling got in the way of doing things the normal way. But, the normal way in this case may not have been the best solution for this lady. I believe that this lady received better care and treatment for Alzheimer at the psychiatrist hospital than if she had ended in a nursing home. furthemore, a psych ward in a psychiatric hospital is a just a section in the overall hospital used to contain decompensated individuals temporary till they get better and then returned to the main unit. I find it very hard to believe that this lady spent 15 years in a “dirty” psych ward. Psych wards are not designed to commit the mentally ill Infinitely. While your story is written and appears to be compassionate, it nonetheless reinforces the negative social stigma that has been imposed on the mentally ill for centuries. Would it have been any better, if the lady had been comitted to a cancer hospital for 15 years instead of the nursing home ?
    Your story also doesn’t tell us how they finally revealed her identity. Obviously some govt. bureaucrat somewhere must have cared enough to continue searching for her true identity even after 15 years !

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