Rugged Individualism Dies a Slow Death on the High Plains

If the High Plains had an official philosophy, it would be Rugged Individualism. The Rugged Individualist bends nature to his will under his own might and survives despite all odds on his own ingenuity and hard work. He is the mythic paragon of High Plains citizenry.

Of course, the myth holds up poorly when we take a closer look. The High Plains are very lightly populated. As such, individuals are even more dependent on community and society at large than in many cities.

Sometimes those bonds are strikingly personal. I walk into gas stations on the High Plains regularly. Without fail, a collection jar for some young person injured in a farming accident or suffering from some unexpected disease greets me when I enter.

More commonly though, those dependencies are complex networks of support. They are often not apparent on the surface.

Indeed, the entire economy of the High Plains is largely based in government support (save for grassfed ranching). Subsidies for corn, wheat, and cotton support the agricultural economy. The states and federal government pay for the education sectors. Medicare and Medicaid pays for the care of the ill and elderly, who make up a disproportionately larger share of rural populations.

Medicare and Medicaid are the lifeblood of the few hospitals who manage to eek out an existence on the High Plains. The numbers of the privately insured are too low to fatten their bottom lines. Indeed, a state’s decision not to expand medicaid has been linked to increased rural hospital closures.

Nonetheless, the Myth Lives On…

Despite the evidence supporting the dependency that rural areas have on the government and community institutions, the myth of the Rugged Individualist lives on.

Some of this is understandable. Many people on the High Plains have grown accustomed to handling challenges on their own. In the day to day of their lives, their lived experience is one of having to be very independent and resourceful.

Moreover, people place a huge value on “straight talk” on the High Plains. The residents of the High Plains are quick to dismiss any delving into complexities and grey areas as a form of obfuscation. As such, discussions on how economically dependent the High Plains are on the federal government are easily shut down.

But Why the Rugged Individualist?

The Rugged Individualist is part of the Defining Myth of the High Plains. Be they sodbusters or cowboys, those myths give a sense of place and identity to the High Plains.

Myths are powerful things. To destroy a Defining Myth is to philosophically destroy a person. He/She will resist it all costs.

Communities and individuals cling tighter and tighter to such Myths when they sense risks to their survival. The popularity of Brexit among much of declining working class Britain may be an attempt to reassert the Defining Myths of Britishness.

Similarly, the High Plains are on a century’s long economic and demographic decline. Small towns throughout the High Plains are teetering on the edge of viability. Every ten years we see how they are slowly hemorrhaging population. As such, their Myths have increased in importance overtime.

People and communities need to take pride in something. If they cannot take pride in their economic vitality, robust institutions, and entrepreneurial populace, people will seek solace in their Defining Myths. In this case, it is the Myth of Rugged Individualism.

This even seeps into the culture of healthcare in the region.

Treating the Chronically Ill Rugged Individualist

Contending with the myths of Rugged Individualism is one of the more exasperating parts of my job.

I see many people with multiple chronic diseases requiring huge amounts of medical intervention. Despite this, they continue to live 20 minutes from town on a farm/ranch or even just an acreage.

They have little to no family support. This is usually because the kids all left for the city and jobs. Sometimes, it is just clearly because the individual is such a goddamn pain in the ass.

Acutely, they are often suffering from COPD/CHF exacerbation, lumbar fractures, chronic wound infections, chronic debilitation from limited activity, or any other number of chronic complaints. To any reasonable discerning observer, the root cause is chronic deterioration of their health without social support.

Nonetheless, they cling to their need to live “independently.” Somehow, routine hospital stays, home health, huge expenditures of time and assistance on the part of family do not constitute “dependence.”

The Rugged Individualist often confuses stubbornness for strength.

An Encounter With a Chronically Ill Rugged Individualist

I am sitting in the clinic office finishing a note and the phone rings. A nurse from the hospital calls and asks if I can take a look a patient. The patient is here for some outpatient wound care.

The nurse goes on, “We had her in swing bed last week for rehab. She has been home for less than a week. I am worried that she might have cellulitis under her pannus.”

I walk into the room. The patient is laying diagonally across the hospital bed, feet dangling off the edge. The position is awkward and unnatural. I introduce myself.

“I am the On-Call doctor, do mind if I look at your wound?”

She barely acknowledges my presence “Go ahead.”

The nurse and I retract her pannus. Underneath is the characteristic beet red color with cheesy accents of a massive yeast infection in the folds of skin.

“Ma’am, you have a yeast infection. Are you able to keep the area dry and clean at home?”

“No, I can’t reach it and no one’s ’round to help.”

Afterwards, I learn the two home health agencies which service the county refuse to work with her.

“Yeast lives in warm, moist environments, like in between your skin here. All the medicine in the world won’t keep this from happening if you can’t keep it dry and clean.” I begin to explain.

“But I can’t reach it and I ain’t got no help.”

I continue. “So, you can’t take care of it yourself at home and you have no help. The only other option is living in a facility where there is help. Like a nursing home.”

She bristles as expected, “I ain’t going into no damn nursing home.”

“Well, then this is going to keep happening.”

She nods her head in reluctant acknowledgement and says nothing more.

An Institution Funded through Enabling

A good number of the acute inpatient admissions I do are effectively the result of chronic ailments getting so far out of control so as to justify admitting someone to the hospital. Basically, the hospitals stay afloat through enabling the untenable living situations of the chronically-ill.

This is largely achieved through federal tax dollars. Those hospitals prevent people from dying alone in their homes or being dispositioned to a nursing home in a larger town after a hospitalization.

I recently related a story about intubating a woman with end-stage COPD. As far as I know, this was her 3rd-4th time in a year. She had only been home 2-3 weeks after a long hospital and rehab stay. In the nursing home, she had done well and improved with simple, attentive care.

She spent 10 days intubated in the ICU, at which point they placed a tracheostomy tube sent her to a facility which specialized in long term ventilated patients. It only took a few weeks at home without attentive care for this to happen.

After years of hospital admissions, intubations, and nearly dying multiple times, she is now ventilator dependent. This will likely be for the rest of her life. I don’t know if her staying in the nursing home would have kept her off a ventilator, but I do know that attempting to live “independently” hastened the course.

I have watched her story play out over and over again. In residency we referred to it as “tuning ’em up.” We’d admit someone, diurese them, and send them back to the same dysfunctional environment which allowed them to get so out of balance in the first place.

The hospital bills Medicare, we all collect a paycheck, and we do it all over again.

The Costs of Healthcare Individualism

Americans believe in the rights and importance of the individual above all else. Similarly, we place patient autonomy atop the ethical totem pole in US healthcare, even if it leads to harm.

The incentives in our medical system have created a structure which ignores the interconnectedness of the patient to their broader world. We spend little on the social determinants of health even though they are far more predictive of health outcomes than clinical medicine.

The importance we place on the individual ignores the reality of human existence. Connection and dependency define humanity. Humans are inherently social animals. We need each other and our surroundings affect us immeasurably.

In attempting to treat the chronically-ill as rugged individuals, we deny their connectedness. Ignoring those bonds, especially with the chronically ill, continues to lead to enormous inefficiencies and harm within our healthcare system.

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