Is there a Doctor in the House?

June 12, 2009 § 1 Comment

Hippocrates statue, OxfordI am very angry about the AMA’s decision to come out against the Obama health care plan.  I know they don’t represent most doctors; that many of them have financial interests in insurance and pharmaceutical companies; I know that they’re only a few rungs above the NRA. Yet my cat has chosen this moment to interrupt me and he’s doing his bunny dance, reminding me of childhood Easters and the unutterable beauty and helplessness of domestic animals.  I can’t help but think: who will take care of him if I die from some illness I don’t have insurance for?

It’s not an idle question. I get my insurance through my husband, who could be laid off any day. He’s retirement age, so they probably wouldn’t even let him have cobra. Already I ignore the phone calls from the doctors. It’s been too long for any anomalous test results; any inquiries now have to do with insurance problems. Let them come to me. Many times. I’m in no hurry.

My dear friend Philip was talking today about how he now understands how in the 60’s and 70’s men like him could just suddenly decide to drop out, abandoning corporate jobs for quick pleasure and freedom and whatever might follow. I reminded him that many of the college-age hippies had fathers just like he is now; imprisoned in the corporate world, suffocated. They saw the future.

He’s not quite ready to forgive our generation’s hippies, whom he pigeonholes as  trust fund babies, though the great majority weren’t, but we both hope for a pervasive, across-the-board revulsion for the establishment. If it happens, it won’t be like the ‘60’s. It’ll be smarter, more focused and less pure, less experimental. It will be the 21st century response.

Like most people who didn’t suffer inordinately in prison camps, war zones or extreme poverty, I would not give up the era of my youth. My mother wouldn’t give up her era, and I suspect my grandmother would have felt the same. It’s like the Philip Larkin poem, “Sex began in 1963/ a little late for me” –a brilliantly bitter poem—which goes on to talk about how his father’s generation probably envied his for not being so hidebound by the church. There’s always more freedom and more loss.

Back to the AMA. I used to fear and dislike doctors. I’ve come to be very fond of the several I go to regularly (even when they don’t remember me) and the few I know socially or as family members. I’d like them to throw off their chains. For a segment of society that’s very well educated, bookwise and peoplewise, and still accorded great respect, and more than that is in the middle of one of the biggest policy decisions of our time, I think they could be more creative. Remember the Million Man March? Get it together, docs. Do something. You don’t have to agree on the details: Congress will assume control of them anyway. Work, parenthood, religion, science, art—whatever moves you, whatever makes you feel like a human being and a citizen, depends on health (and on the fear of illness kept to a quiet murmur in the head).

The ability to heal and prevent many diseases is the rare gift of our era. Gifts are more than the solutions they offer. Their power lies in their very existence: that we are blessed. Do we really want to destroy the awe-inspiring fact of that with squabbles over money made by those who never see a patient?

That’s what it’s come to. I read about advances in cancer treatment and diabetes, in malaria and AIDS, and it seems like none of it matters.  When you’re fifty-something with a few anomalies, on a handful of drugs, and the tests become unattainable, it feels like adolescence. Adolescence the way I experienced it, on the cusp of the 70’s. Anything could happen, and did. I didn’t expect to be saved by my mother, though I did expect to be housed and fed. The dangers, though, the dangers that were always there for a kid like me, testing boundaries (drugs, sex)—it feels like that now, except I have less choice. I’m out on my own with my body.  Illness will come or it won’t. I’ll be able to pay for doctors, or I won’t.

For that uncertainty I blame the AMA. The Republicans. The citizenry—the ignorant, the greedy, the shortsighted and the daft majority who thinks nothing has anything to do with them, until it does.

And I blame myself, but that’s another story. One I’m not going to write at 3 a.m


“One of the fundamental reasons why so many doctors become cynical and disillusioned is precisely because, when the abstract idealism has worn thin, they are uncertain about the value of the actual lives of the patients they are treating. This is not because they are callous or personally inhuman: it is because they live in and accept a society which is incapable of knowing what a human life is worth.”

~John Berger


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