Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Burning Man's answer to health care reform

So by now you've probably figured out that Burning Man can be a dangerous place. If the dust and heat don't get you, there's always a late-night fall from the top of a rolling disco club or indulging in too many "special" brownies or a painful skid down a 30-foot tall, AstroTurf slide. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

What all this means is shit happens. And when it happens to you, you head to Black Rock City's medical tent.

That's where I ended up with Tim and two other camp mates, who all suffered fairly minor bumps and bruises.

Tim was in a head-on bike collision late one afternoon in a mild dust storm. His finger was pretty badly cut, but we waited until the next morning to get it checked.
Here's Tim giving some basic information to a clerk, who then printed a one-page medical record that stayed with him until he left.
Patients with minor issues, like Tim, were sent to an open area where they were seen by a nurse and sent on their way. People with more serious issues were sent to one of 10 cots in the heart of the tent.

About 10 nurses and one doctor manned the station during peak hours. Each staffer was a volunteer, working a single 12-hour shift in exchange for free entry to the event.

And the price to patients? Absolutely nothing. Imagine that. Socialized medicine that actually works.

The operation reminded me of the way health care was handed out after Katrina devastated New Orleans. (Go here to see one of my early posts on medical services immediately after the hurricane.) Black Rock City might be the only place in the country where this kind of post-catastrophe, battlefield triage care is practiced on a regular basis.

Patients requiring more than a couple hours of monitoring, antibiotics or a few stitches were shipped out in an ambulance to a hospital in Reno, located about two and a half hours away.

During my time in the tent, I saw people with flu symptoms, asthma attacks, cuts, sprains, bad drug trips, wound infections and separated shoulders.

Now back to the AstroTurf slide . . .
When I polled nurses one the biggest source of injuries, the unanimous winner was this ill-conceived monstrosity. People climbed to the top and slid down on thin sheets of plastic. I did it, and have to admit it was pretty cool.

But the plastic sheets often shifted or tore apart during descent, and nothing stopped sliders from crashing into bystanders when they reached the bottom.
These were among the most common injuries suffered at the slide. Imagine all of the nasty little microscopic things living on those green plastic blades.

Without a doubt, the services provided by the medical tent staff is essential. With so many people clustered in such a remote location for so many days, there must be a way to tend to the injuries that are bound to occur. If the service wasn't available, some people wouldn't feel safe going to Burning Man.

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