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Health Care's Frequent Fliers: The Treatment of Kenny Farnsworth

Kenny Farnsworth called 911 hundreds of times -- sometimes daily. Was he part of the health-care problem, or a result of it?

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By Dave Jamieson
Sunday, November 29, 2009

Eight miles north of the U.S. Capitol, in Silver Spring, there is an office trailer on a tow lot where the telephone rings throughout the day. As one would expect, a lot of the calls come from stranded drivers who need a tow or a jump-start. But these days, most of the calls tend to come from debt collectors -- both human and automated -- searching doggedly for Ken Farnsworth, a chronically ill hospital regular known to first responders and nurses across the Washington area. A decade in and out of emergency rooms has turned Farnsworth into a wanted man.

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Seated in an office chair one summer afternoon, Farnsworth stares at the receiver as the line lights up during a string of calls. "That phone never stops ringing," he says, shaking his head as the call goes to voice mail.

Farnsworth is a short and squat 59-year-old who walks like a man in search of a cane. His paunch hangs over his belt, and his eyes blink slowly behind horn-rimmed bifocals. He could easily be mistaken for a retired firefighter, thanks to the clothing he wears daily -- a matching Washington, D.C., fire department hat and T-shirt, in honor of the men and women who have treated his array of health problems over the years. Farnsworth has no home of his own, so the office trailer is one of a few places where he's been known to crash now and again, with the owner's permission. He lives out of two duffel bags that are stuffed with a few pairs of clothes, some toiletries, and his most recent medical bills and conditions' diagnoses.

The medical claims are too much for Farnsworth to keep up with. They arrive by the bundle every week. The bills come from just about every hospital in the Washington area, as well as from the collection agencies that handle overdue accounts for those hospitals. Farnsworth even has a tab with the D.C. government, which is trying to recoup money he owes it for the countless ambulance rides he has taken.

"I guess I wore out my welcome a long time ago," he says, managing a laugh.

He opens most of the letters and tries to sort through his debts, but the numbers have become too abstract -- "unfathomable" is how he puts it. He piles the bills into neat stacks until they become too unwieldy, then he stuffs them into grocery bags.

Eventually, when he starts to face reality, he throws the overflowing bags into the trash.

***

The first time paramedic Dave Cole picked up Farnsworth was on Thanksgiving Day in 1997. Cole was one year into the job in Washington, working a 12-hour holiday shift, when a call came over the radio for a man choking on a street corner near downtown. He and his partner raced to the scene.

"And there's old Kenny," Cole remembers. "He said he was eating some turkey and choked on a bone." Farnsworth showed the telltale signs of a blocked passageway -- he was grabbing at his throat and gasping for air -- so Cole put him on oxygen, loaded him into the back of the ambulance and headed to the nearest emergency room. "We went in and saw the hospital staff," Cole says, "and I could see it right on their faces." They had just released Farnsworth a few hours earlier, they said. They didn't think there was anything wrong with him. The medic felt duped. So began a long and complicated relationship between Cole and Farnsworth.

Farnsworth quickly carved out a reputation as an emergency room regular. Among even the city's most habitual 911 callers, he was virtually peerless. It wasn't out of the ordinary for a Washington ambulance driver to shuttle Farnsworth more than once on the same shift.

His transports were for conditions including choking, high blood pressure, trouble breathing and internal pains. Over the years, he has suffered from convulsive seizures; a deviated septum; pancreatitis; gastritis; two perforated ulcers; a hernia; lymphedema, which causes swelling in his legs; acid reflux disease; and irritable bowel syndrome. His problems have run literally from his head, where he once suffered a skull fracture, to his feet, which are two different sizes, thanks to some bone removal after a break in his left foot.


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