First, Do No Harm

This is the second time I’ve participated in a reading/discussion group based on the theme of Literature, Compassion and Health Care.  Our group meets at the Walt Whitman Birthplace Site in Melville, New York and is facilitated by a physician/poet Dr. Jack Coulehan.  The aura of Whitman magically pervades the site and all its multitudinous activities, including our discussion group.

Whitman was a very compassionate person.  He spent several years during the Civil War at the bedsides of severely wounded soldiers consoling them during their darkest hours. Before volunteering for this job, he already had a fine-tuned affinity for humanity, reflected in his poetry.  His Civil War experiences served to further deepen his compassion for mankind.

The small size of our discussion group, about ten participants, allows us to have a “conversation” about the assigned reading: No Apparent Distress, by Rachel Pearson (2017) and Regeneration by Pat Barker (1993). In addition, about a dozen or so poems are also on the reading list,  several of them written by Dr. (Jack) Coulehan who is a published poet.

The author of No Apparent Distress wrote about her personal experiences with patients while training to become a physician. Since much of her early training took place in a student-run clinic in south Texas, as well as in a hospital for the poor and indigent, her experiences are colored by the poverty, poor education and discrimination her patients have suffered in addition to their physical and mental ailments.

The readings we are assigned and the discussions that follow are very relevant to the battle now taking place between Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act and Trump’s efforts to dismantle it piece by piece.  As the average citizen becomes poorer in America, and as the poor become even worse off than they already were vis a vis their health care,  we are heading toward the brink. With our current piecemeal, pay-as-you-go health care system in place, only a select group of middle class citizens with good jobs that provide low-cost, comprehensive health-care plans can afford to purchase a health care plan.  Others are forced to pay high premiums for their health-care insurance. We collectively fear for those who will increasingly be priced out of any kind of health care. Many people are now in more dire straits than they were a few years ago when the Affordable Health Care Act was passed.

As yet our group has only touched the surface of the body of issues that arise within our present health care system. As a four-year cancer survivor, I can all too easily remember the fear and anxiety I experienced regarding my health care and diagnosis. But because I am a retired teacher with an affordable health care plan in place,  I probably received the best care a middle-class person can get in the United States. I was lucky and survived.

I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have to rely on health care services delivered by the overworked and underpaid providers who serve the poor. Pearson provides several examples of how the poor can simply die for lack of appropriate or sufficient treatment as well as lack of consistency  in their care takers.

This is such an important conversation we are having, it ought to be made available to everyone so that we can all become better informed about the forces that drive our healthcare system including how changes are brought about, and what could be done to improve our health care.  Perhaps this goal could be achieved through a required course in high-schools or colleges (similar to the Health classes now offered to teen agers concerning reproduction) or in libraries which now serve as our community centers, or through churches and other non-profit institutions.

At the moment I feel very privileged. Privileged to be alive following a fourth-stage cancer diagnosis; privileged to not have to worry very much about my healthcare bills and the quality of my care; privileged to have the time in my life to participate in this unique seminar; and privileged to be able to share this experience with the Two Writing Teachers  blogging community which includes teachers from all over the United States and beyond.

In the United States we are still a long way from providing health care as the “right” of every individual.    What will it take to achieve that ideal?