Photo: UTMB John Sealy Hospital
Last month, a woman was preparing for a surgery to remove a potentially life-threatening tumor from along her spine, but after almost a week in the hospital, she said a doctor told her to go have her surgery in Mexico. She was then given discharge papers.
Maria Sanchez, 24, had already spent six days at the University of Texas Medical Branch’s John Sealy Hospital (UTMB) being prepped for surgery that would remove a banana-sized tumor from her spine that has lodged itself between her vertebrae. The tumor is now causing her to lose functionality in her right hand and making it harder to use her other hand and her legs.
Sanchez is an undocumented immigrant, and UTMB documentation says she was discharged because she was “an undocumented [patient] with no insurance,” and also shows that she had at least one procedure done, with a scheduled surgery date, before she was discharged without warning on January 12th, when she says a Spanish-speaking doctor came to her room and told her she should go have surgery in Mexico
When she received her surprising discharge papers, Sanchez called her husband Luis Aguilion.. When he arrived, he found his wife and his mother crying on the bed. Understandably, Aguillon, a legal U.S. resident, was angry.
“They treated us like animals, like dogs or something,” said 36-year-old Aguillon, an unemployed welder. “It’s like saying to that black lady, because she is black, go to Africa.”
While hospitals have the right to deny care to undocumented immigrants at all facilities except emergency care centers, this case still raises both legal and ethical questions.
Dr. Bill Nealon, a former UTMB general surgeon who is now at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee said, “If we are going to be brutally honest, this is a practice that takes place at other hospitals. The real problem for UTMB is that it was documented, and they have a commitment for care to the indigent.” He added that there is no legal basis for refusing a patient care on the basis inability to pay.
Ethically, hospitals are obligated to provide care to any patient they have already accepted, regardless of immigration status.
Medical records show that Sanchez was admitted to the emergency room at Clear Lake Regional Medical Center on January 5th, and the next day transferred to UTMB because, as the records state, Clear Lake doctors did not have the neurosurgical skills to treat her. The records also show that a UTMB neurosurgeon accepted Sanchez as a patient after speaking with a Clear Lake doctor. Therefore, UTMB took responsibility of Sanchez’s care and was then ethically obligated to continue with her care. Legally, however, the hospital could determine that a patient is stabilized then terminate their care by sending them a return-receipt letter and provided them with enough time to make other arrangements.
Aguillon said he and his wife were given no referrals, only the discharge document.
In the end, Aguillon moved to from Galveston to Houston so he could qualify for care a Ben Taub General Hospital where she is now receiving treatment, but only after he took his wife to five hospitals and three clinics.