It has been a while. The good news is that I am able to tell the tale.
Samuel Johnson, the celebrated eighteenth-century English man of letters, is reputed to have quipped, “Nothing more wonderfully concentrates a man’s mind than the sure knowledge he is to be hanged in the morning.” In fact, he said concerning an acquaintance, Rev. William Dodd, an Anglican clergyman and former chaplain to the king who had been condemned to death for some shady financial dealings, that “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” [From James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, 1791, for September 19, 1777.]
Whatever the case, Johnson expressed a sentiment that is undeniably true in many lives, and surely so in mine this year. Although I was not in immediate danger of being hanged, in early January I was blindsided by a diagnosis of serious coronary arterial disease that was potentially fatal. Thanks to the quick action of physicians and surgeons at Loyola Hospital, within days I underwent a battery of tests, quadruple bypass surgery, and had a pacemaker implanted to correct a faulty atrial valve.
My mind was focused pretty sharply in the days following the diagnosis and following events, at least when I was able to think. Since then, my view of the world has shifted into a different if greater clarity regarding a lot of things, not least of which is the sure and swift deployment of health insurance made possible by being employed full time by a university that values the wellbeing of its faculty, students, and staff.
But what of those lacking such an institutional safety net? Over the weeks I was in preparation for surgery, the surgeries themselves, a week in intensive care, and two more weeks in convalescence, I daily came into contact with a number of patients needing — and receiving — the same excellent care that I was given. Many were elderly women and men of color who I learned were able to receive life-saving medical care because of Medicare and Medicaid.
I have long believed in the need for universal health insurance, something now almost in reach for most (but not all) Americans. Given the constant escalation of health care costs, I shudder to think of the expense involved just in the case of the care and treatment of our “cohort” of heart-failure patients at one great hospital. Health care is a complex field, both difficult to comprehend and, as we as a nation have learned, also to pay for. But health care is clearly a right of citizens that should be protected and perfected. It is a prime responsibility of any government to foster the health and welfare of its citizens, but also a goal that is frustratingly out of reach especially for the billions of people living in poorer countries. And even in our own.
For just as clearly, the hemorrhaging costs of providing health care pose a major problem in what is arguably still the wealthiest country in the world, especially considering the vast profits reaped at public expense by the health-care industry and giant pharmaceutical corporations. Most clearly of all, it seems hardly possible to provide adequate health care, education, and welfare so long as we as a people are intent on waging multi-trillion dollar wars in distant lands. Somehow, something, sometime, is going to have to wonderfully concentrate our minds.