How technology is failing my family

By Nathaniel Mott , written on November 22, 2012

From The News Desk

As I type this my father is lying in a hospital bed far away from me and being pumped full of pain medication that, for all of the wonder we're able to manage with morphine and who-knows-what-else they give people in agony, isn't doing much good. He has been diagnosed with necrotizing pancreatitis, and may be dying.

The thing you need to know about my father is that he's constantly in and out of hospitals. Whether it was stomach pain, because of a botched surgery so many years ago that left his entire abdomen scarred and sensitive to the touch, or recently-diagnosed Crohn's disease, or various nerve problems that have plagued him the last decade, my father is no stranger to hospital rooms. When he went in Sunday to find out what was wrong, he probably called each nurse and doctor by name.

For anyone unfamiliar – and believe me, I was right there with you until about an hour ago – necrotizing pancreatitis is a fancy way of saying that the pancreas, which produces all kinds of useful hormones and helps with digestion, is dying. This is bad. In my father's case, half of his pancreas is effectively "dead," and the doctors aren't sure that he will stabilize. If he doesn't in the next day or so, chances are that he will probably die.

People who have had to hear about loved ones dying from hundreds (or even thousands, with today's emphasis on expansion and global living) of miles away knows how this works. There's never one phone call summarizing what is happening and when you need to get your ass back to Dodge – there are phone calls that need to be made to siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, friends, parents, to anyone who may need (I hesitate to say "want," for obvious reasons) to know what is happening.

The fact that we're able to make these calls is good. Cell phones have become, as Amber Case described at a TED conference, little wormholes that render the miles moot. That doesn't mean the process isn't clunky, however; calls are dropped, everyone wants to call at the same exact time, and, for all of our VoIP protocols and video-chatting services, the person that everyone most wants to hear from is unable to communicate.

This isn't a feel-good story about all the good technology does, though. It's about perspectives, how technology constantly and inevitably fails us no matter how much we look to it as our salvation.

My family has never been described as "early adopters." We didn't have a decent home Internet connection until I was 13, and all of our computers have been hand-me-downs. When my mom heard about MagicJack, a VoIP service that would help lower the phone bill, however, she went ahead and "cut the cord."

Unfortunately, MagicJack has been a steaming pile of shit. Part of this can likely be blamed on the previously-mentioned computer and a mediocre Internet connection, which pervades much of the US.

Yesterday, after being sent home to lay on the couch in agony, convinced that there was something wrong but without anyone believing him, my father tried to call 911. But MagicJack wasn't working. Because my family had finally gotten ahead of the curve and ditched the landline, my father was left without a way of calling for help.

He managed to get to his car and drive down the block to a local fuel store, where he proceeded to honk the horn until someone came out and called the hospital for him. Imagine that for a moment – after a year of dealing with nerve problems so bad that a special device had to be implanted in his back while dealing with the ravages of Crohn's disease, with his liver failing, the only way to get help was to honk the horn and pray someone would hear and help.

Then, once my father was in the hospital, he asked the doctors and nurses to call my mother. They didn't. There was probably some miscommunication somewhere along the line, maybe a shift change, maybe a bigger emergency. As a result my mother had no idea where my father was for hours. For all the talk of doctors and hospitals becoming more streamlined, with technology providing better and more efficient care, the hospital couldn't remember to call someone whose spouse had vanished without a trace.

Now, as I sit here in Brooklyn waiting to find out when I will drive the six (or eight, or ten, or twelve – it is the day before Thanksgiving, after all) hours to the hospital, my phone will not stop vibrating as family members want to know what's happening. We have no idea what the other is thinking or doing, no method for effectively learning and communicating what is going on. If I told them I set up a Yammer or private Facebook Group three-quarters of my relatives would have no idea what I was talking about. Google and WebMD are particularly dark places to lurk right now, and no matter how many photo-sharing apps I launch or video-chat services I download, this problem isn't going away. Technology platforms are like languages — to communicate you need to be able to speak the other's tongue.

Technology, simply put, isn't helping. It failed to detect dying tissue in a man who has spent most of his life wondering what was wrong. It failed when he needed to head back to the hospital and hope that they knew why he was in so much pain. It failed when he needed to let someone, anyone know where he was and that he wasn't okay. Moment by moment, hour by hour, and day by day, it's failing to let those of us who care about the man in the hospital bed do or communicate or learn.

We've come so far; we have so far to go.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]