This month’s Notable Narrative, “Hidden Hurt,” from The Washington Post Magazine, addresses poverty, the plight of the uninsured, and the long-term health effects of mining—all by covering one weekend at a county fairground in Wise, Virginia. There, a mobile hospital sets up to care for the almost-forgotten folks of Appalachia.

Characters abound, from the former Wild Kingdom anaconda wrestler who organizes the clinic to the diabetic and down-on-their-luck patients who sleep in cars then line up each morning to get treatment. Patients receive everything from dental care to minor surgery, while author Mary Otto frames their situation with carefully chosen medical statistics and mining history from the region. In the end, Otto observes, this gargantuan effort ultimately serves only as “a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.”

Although Otto gives glimpses into the lives of some patients, when she writes that by the end of the weekend “more than 4,000 teeth have been extracted,” she is clearly choosing to tell the story of an event rather than any individual. Nonetheless, a tight focus on fewer characters might have allowed richer portraits to emerge. The online slide show and video were helpful in this regard, with one patient asking on-screen, “Where does the money come from to be able to buy insurance? I mean, we’re having problems eating.” But the story itself succeeds by bringing the fairground to life and portraying the desperate need the mobile hospital addresses.

Read “Hidden Hurt,” by Mary Otto

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