MSNBC
updated 11/16/2009 7:39:43 PM ET 2009-11-17T00:39:43

It happened as I watched a 50-something woman walk out, after spending several hours being attended to by volunteer doctors. "She's decided against treatment. A reasonable decision under the circumstances," the doctor tells us as she heads for the next patient. The president of the board of the National Association of Free Health Clinics tells me why: "It's stage four breast cancer, her body is filled with tumors." I don't know when that woman last saw a doctor. But I do know that if she had health insurance, the odds she would have seen a doctor long ago are much higher, and her chances for an earlier diagnosis and treatment would have been far greater.

After watching for hours as the patients moved through the clinic, it was hard to believe that I was in America.

Eighty-three percent of the patients they see are employed, they are not accepting other government help on a large scale, not "welfare queens" as some would like to have us believe. They are tax-paying, good, upstanding citizens who are trying to make it and give their kids a better life just like you and me.

Ninety percent of the patients who came through Saturday's clinic had two or more diagnoses.
Eighty-two percent had a life-threatening condition such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or hypertension. They are victims of a system built with corporate profits at its center, which long ago forgot the moral imperative that should drive us to show compassion to our fellow men and women.

Health reform is not about Democrats or Republicans or who can score political points for the next election, it's about people. It's about fairness and justice in a system that knows none. I'd defy even the most hardened capitalist-loving-conservative to do what I did on Saturday and continue to pretend that the system in place right now is working.

Countdown chose to highlight and raise money for the Association of Free Clinics because we knew the work they do is so vitally important and we wanted to show in real terms how great the need is. We invited several politicians to attend so they could see first hand how critical the situation is. All declined. Some explained that they talk with constituents all the time and know very well of the need for reform.

I have news for them, these people didn't need to speak. Their actions spoke far louder than any words. Having to get a check up and diagnoses at a free clinic because they have no other option tells you all you need to know. There are no words that can accurately describe the quiet desperation on the faces of the patients. Every single one I spoke to, and every one I heard talking with doctors, expressed their gratitude for the event and wished that they were held more often.

They have been given the resources in their local communities with which they can get follow up care, but they are also the few. Over 700-thousand people in Louisiana alone have no health care, most of them with jobs that don't offer insurance.

Or, worse, they have to decide whether to pay for that or food and housing. Four patients were taken out on stretchers and admitted immediately to hospitals. One woman who didn't know why she was feeling bad had a blood pressure of 280 over 180, numbness in her right arm, and "a slight headache." She now has a shot at survival, but without her attendance at the clinic, it was a matter of time before the inevitable happened.

I spoke with a nurse who was there not as a volunteer, but as a patient. He works two part time jobs at hospitals providing quality care to those who have the one thing he doesn't. Many of his patients share his condition of high blood pressure, but they are fortunate to have insurance to pay for him to care for them while he goes without.

His situation is not uncommon, he has tried for years to get more hours at one of his jobs so he will be eligible for benefits, but it hasn't happened yet. Our system of for-profit health care can't afford to give him and others benefits - might make the stock price drop a penny or two.
The last time the media gathered at that convention center, it was for a natural disaster in which our government was rendered useless due to incompetence.

This time we were there to cover a man-made disaster of even larger proportions. This is a disaster that goes largely unseen by most Americans. It is not too late for our current government to show that they are competent, and can do what the vast majority of Americans are asking them to. The incredibly dedicated people at the Association of Free Clinics told me the clinic would change me and I knew it would. None but the most hardened and heartless among us could watch that event and not be moved to action.

I have changed. I am gratified that just over one thousand people were able to get the minimal amount of care and resources for follow up. But, I am heart-sick for the many more like them who didn't have the time or didn't know that they could get care on Saturday.

They walk through their lives not knowing when the ticking time bomb might go off.
Politicians continue to tell us we are the most compassionate and caring people, and clearly we have done much good in the world. I left the event overwhelmed by the hard work and dedication of the volunteers, doctors, nurses, other medical professionals, as well as ordinary citizens who came to help. I am left with one overwhelming question: what does it say about us as a nation of people who can live in a country so rich and yet allow this to continue?

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