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President Obama: Help Bring Paula Home

The healthcare debate rages across Capitol Hill with lobbyists fighting against a ‘single payer’ option as if it were the moral equivalent of the anti-Christ. Before you blindly accept any bill, please examine the very real (and ironic) face this debate has taken on for this journalist.


Paula Persichini-Petitti is a woman to whom I once joked, “you would be what would happen if Mother Theresa, Joan Jett and a drug-free Janis Joplin merged.” Paula is one tough, rock-and-roll-loving, hard-living, Boston-area born and bred “broahd” with a “haht” (heart) of pure gold. Listening to her thick Boston accent you would start with a first impression that would be one of the absolute biggest mistakes you could ever make.

Paula was born a rebel. She graduated from the nursing program at Blue Hills Regional Institute and became a radiology specialist at a time where technology was evolving and most said she could not do it because she was too young. If you have a death wish or desire physical harm, merely suggest to Paula that she ‘cannot’ do something.

Ironically, she now lays with tubes coming out of her body, a respirator helping her breathe and in a coma in a Rapid City, South Dakota, hospital. She has spent nearly every summer of the last several years, working with Russell and Pearl Means helping Native Americans of the Lakota Sioux Nation in Pine Ridge Reservation. There she counsels and teaches indigenous families about the twin health threats of alcohol abuse and diabetes in one of the USA’s poorest communities.

Several years ago Paula visited the island of Jamaica and was involved in an automobile accident. She’d been an emergency room nurse and when she saw the dreadful conditions people in that rural hospital (near the Black River) lived under, she returned home to Massachusetts and started Most appealed to her saying, “that’s just the way it is Paula, nothing can be done about it.” Remember the old Three Stooges short where someone says “Niagara Falls…” and then “slowly I turn…” Step back please, human freight train coming through.

Her leadership has seen her beg, cajole, plead and threaten just about every doctor, medical school, pharmaceutical and medical supplier in Massachusetts and across the globe to help her bring free medical supplies, used machinery, doctors and nurses to some of the most ravaged 3rd world hell-holes on the face of the planet.


Paula and I grew up two blocks from each other in the southern Massachusetts town of Avon. I went to school with her big brother Ricky and, as usual, everyone went their separate ways after graduation. My friend Terri said, “hey, you’re a journalist, are you aware of Paula’s project?” That began a series of visits, phone calls, Facebook, and Twitter exchanges to develop, research and tell this one woman’s story.

And what a story, everything from threatening Cuban prison guards suspicious of why she was there (providing medical help) by saying she was “Raul Castro’s mistress and there would be hell to pay if he found out she was being held there” (it worked, she was set free)… to being dragged from her hotel room at night, convinced she would be shot and flying in Soviet era helicopters across Laos and Cambodia to meet the ruling generals (think “The Killing Fields”) to demand they provide mosquito netting to protect their citizens against malaria.

This woman’s life is bigger than any Hollywood screenplay. And she shrugs it all off with a laugh that would filled any room. Most of us live fractions of a life. Thoreau, another Massachusetts native said, “I wanted to live deliberately, deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.” Paula lives in a way that most dream of doing.

She was driving in a car that was rear-ended at speed by a pickup travelling at 60 mph. The impact severely jarred her brain stem causing damage to the thalamus, the part of the brain which is the centre for speech, body temp., sight, hearing and smell. While she can today squeeze the ICU doctor’s hand on command, the hope is her brain will form connections around the damage and more or less repair itself. The good people in Rapid City have taken her as far as she can go there and she needs now to be med-flighted to Massachusetts General Hospital where she will be under the care of a top neurosurgeon.

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Paula has health insurance and… (you know where this is going before I even type it)… it does not cover life-flights. Speaking to the Life-flight despatch office in Rapid City, South Dakota, the flight is 1,600 air miles in length and will cost $30,000 and that’s just for the flight. Then there is tended ambulance service to and from the airplane at both ends which adds even more not to mention the longer term care she will require to heal.

Buddy Persichini, 78, is Paula’s very proud Dad. He has numerous health issues of his own and Paula has been his rock since her Mom died when she was in high school. Buddy is resigned to taking out a second mortgage on his paid off house to get her home. Were the same to happen to me under the right’s very publicly maligned UK ‘socialised’ NHS medical programme plus my out-of-pocket add-on, I’d already be ‘home’ in the UK in a local hospital with family by my side.

And there, lays the rub. Why should a 78-year old man, who clearly loves his daughter, be forced to bury his fierce New England pride and go deep into debt to bring her home? Why too should Paula now risk losing her home to pay for long-term care when she returns?

This is what needs fixing in the health care system. Not providing the same profit margins for those who can most efficiently lobby but inefficiently leave a broken system essentially intact with some window dressing tweaking around the edges and then everyone calling that “ground breaking change.” For Paula and many like her, I urge you to bring in a public option to bring true competition and transparency into this opaque nightmare of a scenario.

Mr. President, you were quoted two days ago in the New York Times as saying: “What we’ve been doing over the last six months is getting people back into fighting trim. This is a town where there was just a belief that nothing could get done… I’ll use just the workout metaphor, and that is… when you start training again and you’re pushing your body a little bit harder, sometimes it hurts. But if you keep on at it, after a while your body adjusts. And I think that’s what’s happening to politics in Washington.”

Well, sir, it’s time to end the training and start the marathon. It’s time Congress to put some real political capital and action behind those words on everything from this issue to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. You came into office promising change we could believe in and this is important not just to the nation, but to every one of us who sees a true Mother Theresa in need. Please consider it for all the irony-filled Paula’s out there, not just the ones who tell the best story at your town hall meeting and help bring her home without bankrupting her or her Dad in the process.

My own deep regret is that during my most recent visit to the USA in May, I cancelled our scheduled meeting because of my time considerations. I now have to live with that. I promised to come back and see her in the fall. Now I must pray she will be home, solvent, conscious and well enough to recognise me.

(Please contribute to “The Fund for Paula Persichini-Pettiti.” The family and her friends are moving very quickly to establish all accounts to life-flight transport her home and provide for her long term care needs.)


Denis Campbell

Denis Campbell publishes the e-magazine, where this article first appeared.