Topic: Professions & Institutions

Michael Jackson and the Grandmother

What is it with Americans and celebrities? For a nation formed over 200 years ago on the principle that we are all created equal, it is more than strange that so many of its citizens will willingly discard all shreds of common sense, ethics and human values when confronted with someone who has achieved fame and fortune.

Even when that celebrity is an accused child molester. And even when pampering the celebrity means killing a grandmother.

If there is any silver lining to the certifiable awful story of how the staff of the Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria, California accommodated a flu-stricken Michael Jackson by moving a desperately ill 74 year-old heart patient, probably bringing about her death, it is that the lawyers are gathering, and the hospital is likely to pay dearly. Not all ethical outrages that arise from celebrity-inspired misconduct bring such certain retribution. Still, the implications of this incident are disturbing, because the mindset that created it is not confined to Santa Maria.

Michael Jackson, 46 (his voice will change any day now) walked into the hospital complaining of severe stomach pains. Undoubtedly his entourage insisted on sultan-worthy accommodations for the stricken pop star, but all the staff had to say in response was "No." Instead, according to ABC News, they cleared the primary trauma room for him. To do that, they had to remove Manuela Gomez Ruiz, a 74-year-old grandmother, from the machine ventilator that was keeping her alive since a massive heart attack, and use a manual hand pump to help her breathe until she was relocated to a smaller room nearby. While the King of Pop was getting all comfy in Mrs. Ruiz’s former hospital room, she suffered two more heart attacks and perished.

It is quite possible that the gravely ill woman would have died in any event, but there is more to this outrage. Her large family had gathered in the original room; once she was moved, only two visitors were allowed to see her at a time because so much equipment had to be set up for her life support. If Jackson’s invasion didn’t kill Mrs. Ruiz, it certainly robbed family members of the chance to say goodbye.

"This was the last time we might be able to talk with our grandma. They took that from us," said Marcos Meraz, one of Ruiz’s grandsons.

Maria Elena Ortiz, Ruiz’s daughter, said she was in the trauma room when Jackson came in and objected to staff when her mother was moved. "I said, ‘My mother just had a heart attack and I think it’s more critical than a stomach flu.’ They didn’t say anything."

They didn’t say anything because a distorted set of values had invaded the decision-making center of the staff’s brains. Although they would never admit it, they had concluded that doing everything possible for a wealthy and powerful pop culture icon was more important than saving the life of an old woman nobody outside of Santa Maria ever heard of. "Somebody" versus "Nobody"? An easy call. They would have done the same for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Brady, Donald Trump or Hillary Duff. Maybe even for Ashlee Simpson, Jimmy Swaggert, or Gary Coleman. And maybe even for Kato Kaelin, Jose Canseco, or Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog.

They are all famous, you see; and the same Americans who are ready to humiliate themselves by telling dark secrets to Maury Povich or Jerry Springer, the very Americans who get up at 4 AM in the morning to stand outside the "Today Show" holding pointless signs on the off-chance that Al Roker ("Al Roker’s sick? Get that old lady out of here!!") will talk to them on the air, really think, deep down, that being famous makes celebrities better than they are. In that misconception they are prompted by the media, which breathlessly announces every trivial moment in celebrity lives, and reinforced by the hierarchy of values even the "respectable" news organizations embrace. Johnny Carson’s death is covered as if he was a head of state: he hosted a long-running talk show. Arthur Miller was one of the four greatest playwrights in American history: PBS re-ran his ten year-old interview with Charlie Rose. (If he hadn’t been married Marilyn Monroe once, he probably wouldn’t even have gotten that.) John Raitt, a great Broadway singer and actor who was at the center of two classic American musicals, "Carousel" and "Pajama Game", died recently, and received prominent mention because his daughter Bonnie still has some pop culture cache. But what figure who died the same day received the long feature stories and the television segments? Why, Sandra Dee, of course. After all, she played "Gidget."

The essential wrongness of the hospital staff’s actions will not be disputed by anyone, perhaps not even by the staff itself, once they are out of the hypnotic aura of the Gloved One. But their conduct should serve as a wake-up call to a celebrity-addled culture. It is bad enough that our obsessions with Paris, Kobe, The Donald, and the rest make us and our children silly, ignorant, venal, and boring. But it is genuinely frightening when it threatens to begat a culture that regards the life of an ordinary American less valuable than declining singer’s comfort.

Celebrities are, by definition, those whom we celebrate, and the values they represent will, in time, become our values. America has come to the point where it must choose between finding a better class of celebrities or adopting a worse set of values. The Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria and the tragedy of Manuela Gomez Ruiz make it very clear what that choice should be, and unfortunately, what choice we seem to be making.

[Special thanks to Rhonda Hill for bringing this story to the Scoreboard’s attention.]


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