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STEVE LOPEZ POINTS WEST

Adding insult to a quake injury Injured laborer dumped like a wounded animal

August 10, 2008|STEVE LOPEZ

Remember the July 29 earthquake that rocked Southern California but produced no injuries?

It turns out there were at least two broken bones after all. So says a UC Irvine Medical Center doctor who treated Jesus Rodriguez, an unlucky chap who came tumbling off the roof of a house he was working on when the temblor struck.

And that was just the beginning of Rodriguez's troubles.

"If the news media were correct and the quake . . . was a drill, I'd say health services gets an F," Dr. Michael Menchine said. "You just can't make this stuff up."

Rodriguez, 25, has no health insurance. He lost a full-time job recently when his uncle's construction business went under. So he began joining other day laborers each morning at the Home Depot on Beach Boulevard in Stanton, queuing up and hoping for work.

Three or four times a week, he lucked out. Rodriguez is a U.S. citizen and Orange County native who speaks English, all of which helps at times when contractors come trolling for crews. He's also got a lot of experience, in everything from carpeting to window installation to masonry.

It irks him, he said, that he has to compete for those jobs against illegal immigrants. When I asked how many of the guys were illegal, he chuckled.

"Like, 90%," he said.

It's not just the competition that bugs him. He believes that illegal immigrants, who are easily exploited by employers, drive down wages and put added stress on the healthcare system.

On the morning of the earthquake, a man pulled up in a white pickup and hired Rodriguez and two other guys. Rodriguez didn't know the other two. Little was said on the way to the job except that it involved roofing, and it would pay $10 an hour.

Two hours into the shingle job, Rodriguez was on the sloped roof of a one-story house when he suddenly felt like he was on a boat in rough seas. He could feel himself teetering on the edge in the quake, and he managed a quick look down.

"I saw some debris down there, so I pushed off to get over it," he said of his fall.

He landed on both feet, but was in such pain he couldn't stand.

The man who had driven him to the job helped him back into the truck and began driving.

To a hospital, you ask?

Guess again.

"He said he didn't want to deal with that," said Rodriguez.

The driver took him back to Home Depot, helped him out of the truck and left him on a grassy patch near a KFC.

Then he drove away.

Rodriguez tried reaching Ukia, the mother of his kids and the woman he calls his common-law wife, but the phone lines were dead after the earthquake. When he finally got through, she left her job as a telemarketer and raced over. She's big and strong and was able to lift Rodriguez into her van and drive him to West Anaheim Medical Center, where the news was not good.

X-rays showed two broken heels. Rodriguez was splinted, given a referral to an orthopedic specialist and sent home. But Ukia had one stop to make first.

"We went back to Home Depot to see if he could recognize any of the guys he worked with, or if anyone knew the contractor," she said. "It's not right that they just dumped him there like that."

But they struck out and went home.

When Ukia later called to make the orthopedic appointment, she was told that Rodriguez would need $260 in cash to get in the door, and $300 per cast.

They didn't have the money.

Ukia worked the phones trying to get him qualified for Orange County's Medical Services Initiative, which covers indigent adults. But the next morning, Rodriguez was hurting so badly she drove him to UCI Medical Center.

"There's absolutely no reason for him to be back in ER that day. He just came back because he was unable to do the follow-up," said Menchine, who complained of the chronic stress on emergency rooms because so many patients have nowhere else to go. "It's not his fault. People clearly need help, but they don't need to see us."

Menchine and his cohorts did another round of X-rays, redid the splints, got an orthopedic consult and referred Rodriguez for a follow-up appointment that was scheduled for last Tuesday. But Ukia, who had finally lined up temporary insurance after a maddening run-around, was told there was no record of the appointment.

On Friday -- 10 days after his injury -- Rodriguez finally saw a specialist and found out that his best option is surgery. The recovery could take three months or more.

The fact that he'll finally get treated doesn't mean the system works, Menchine said. The payments for his kind of insurance are rock-bottom, so many physicians don't accept it. And too many patients with limited insurance, or none at all, opt for ERs or wait too long for needed care.

The answer?

Menchine said he thought that among the original crop of presidential candidates, Sen. Hillary Clinton's universal health insurance plan was the best. Not that it would ever have materialized without a miracle, given all the special interests that profit from the maddening status quo.

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