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.
A sobering footnote to Melody Petersenâ€™s Our Daily Meds (see preceding) appeared in the November 25 Public Library of Science web site in the form of a review of reports by pharmaceutical companies submitted to the FDA over a six-year period. Â According to the authors, of 164 reports following the approval of 33 drugs by the FDA in 2001-02, 22% were published only partially or entirely suppressed.Â The suppressed information mainly reflected negative results.Â In short, favorable reports were 70% more likely to be published.Â
As Petersen amply documented, such manipulated information too commonly results in serious health problems including (as advertising caveats remind us hurriedly at the end of their nightly commercials on the evening news) sudden death.Â Pharmaceuticals can be hazardous to your health!
A synopsis of the article can be found in the Dec. 20 Science News and on their web site: http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/38881/title/Many_drug_trials_never_see_publication.Â For the full article see Kristin Rising, Peter Bacchetti, and Lisa Bero, â€œReporting Bias in Drug Trials Submitted to the Food and Drug Administration: Review of Publication and Presentation,â€ Public Library of Science / Medicine web page: http://medicine.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pmed.0050217
The scariest film I saw in 2008 was Let the Right One In, the brilliant Swedish vampire movie. Â The economy is pretty scary, too. Â But the scariest of all was reading Melody Petersenâ€™s new book, Our Daily Meds, a Sarah Crichton book from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The subtitle sums it up: â€œHow the Pharmaceutical Companies Transformed Themselves into Slick Marketing Machines and Hooked the Nation on Prescription Drugs.â€ I suggest getting it with one of those gift certificates that will be rolling in and the read it all the way through.Â Petersen is an investigative reporter who has written for the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the San Jose Mercury News.Â She received the Gerald Loeb award for Business Journalism. She is also a certified public accountant, so do what she says: follow the money!