Undocumented immigrants with kidney failure can’t get proper medical care

DENVER -- A group of patients at Denver Health live life wondering more than most, will their next dialysis treatment be their last?

“This is a group that is near death on a weekly basis that is so devastating,” explained Dr. Lilia Cervantes.

Cervantes is an Internal Medicine Hospitalist and an Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine at Denver Health. She also works in the Division of Internal Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Cervantes doesn’t just treat these patients, she studies them.

“In a seven day week and maybe they feel good about two to three days," she explained.

Cervantes is referring to patients like Ricardo. The 57-year-old chose not to share his last name because of his status in the Unites States. He is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who came to the states in search of work and a new life. Six years ago, he was diagnosed with kidney failure. Now he relies on a dialysis machine to keep him alive.

“A lot of liquid in my body, my lungs. It’s very difficult to breathe. I have nausea. I vomit,” described Ricardo of his symptoms.

Like Ricardo, Dr. Cervantes says there are close to 60 patients just like him at Denver Health.

They are all undocumented, all suffer from kidney failure, and none of them qualify for Medicaid and Medicare. They also don’t have the financial means to pay for traditional health care coverage.

Without proper coverage, Denver health can only treat Ricardo when his symptoms become so severe, he could die if he doesn’t get dialysis.

“I go in very bad shape to the hospital,” described Ricardo of his trips to Denver Health.

Dr. Cervantes says patients like Ricardo should be receiving scheduled dialysis three times a week. She argues for what should be obvious health reasons, but also economic reasons.

“This kind of care is more expensive, nearly four times more expensive because of the high level of care that we have to provide, which is  emergency department visits, inpatient stays,” Cervantes explained.

Consistent treatments would change Ricardo’s life.

“Things have gotten really difficult. The money I make has dropped more than half because I can’t work full time. I feel bad because I’m having to depend a lot on my sister, my wife and my nephews. Which thank god they are supporting me,” added Ricardo.

Ricardo knows speaking with the media could mean trouble because of his legal status. But it’s a risk he’s willing to take.

“I’m sharing my story because unfortunately there are so many young people who are now patients like me in the hospital. Someone has to speak up. Someone has to ask for help,” he said.

For the last six years, Dr. Cervantes has studied what she describes as an extremely vulnerable and sick population. She’s looked at the financial effects as well as how treating patients like Ricardo with sub-standard care can take a toll on healthcare workers. She is currently working on two more studies looking at the impact on caregivers and taking a closer look at the financial impact.

Cervantes hopes her research will give decision makers the evidence they need to change policy.

“I think that if we could walk in their shoes, we would understand how devastating and difficult their experiences are,” she added.

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