Who Needs Civility in the Health Care Debate?

Civility in Health care Reform

Beltway Insiders fling political jargon such as “dead on arrival” with ease. When applied to the health care reform debate, benign jargon and posturing can sting those with the greatest stake in the fight.

“Dead on arrival,” has its role in political theater. Important voices are upstaged by congressmen hoisting plump babies to make a point, lawmakers congratulating themselves for winning one round and conservative and progressive organizations parading human cause célèbres before the public. In the wings, doctors, nurses, patients and caregivers wait to be heard.

Hard-working public servants and public figures, please consider this plea for civility. For some of us, this is not just a campaign or an opportunity to make history.

Perhaps it’s the recognition of these high stakes that allows my conservative and progressive family and friends to have conversations about health care reform that do not erupt into three ring circuses. Our passions run deep and the chasm between our views is wide. Every conversation is free of sound bite worthy catchphrases. We always both walk away smarter, and with an appreciation of the other side’s point of view.

I wish Beltway Insiders would adopt the same mentality because demonizing the right or the left will not get us the health care reform we seek. And, while seemingly benign, “dead on arrival” is political jargon that is too painful to hear.

Something More Beautiful: A Brain Tumor Prompts a Search for a Writer’s Better Self

I sensed that bad news was coming by the way the doctor and nurse entered the room. My heart still raced from the twenty-minute dash from my office. Now, the exam room’s white walls cave in on me as I wait on someone, anyone, to deliver my results. My doctor, speaking in an unusually measured tone, finally says, “There is an abnormality on your MRI.” I forget how to speak. I forget how to breathe. My silence permits the doctor to elaborate on the possibilities of a brain tumor, aneurysm, infection or multiple sclerosis. I must be crying because the nurse hands me a wad of tissues. My doctor begs me to remain calm knowing that his request is in vain. How could I? There was something foreign on my brain and I could not get it off my mind… literally.

I call my mother, hours away in Kentucky, and relay my doctors’ instructions to have someone look after me. She, being a perfect mother, announces that she will drive down tomorrow. Being an okay daughter, I hustle to the grocery store as I always do when she visits. I walk down the aisles and my full-figured frame seems dwarfed by the freezers. The entire world becomes so large and it engulfs me in its folds.

No sooner than my mom’s arrival, my doctors admit me to the hospital. We pass the time reading the newspaper. My mother had long considered moving back to Atlanta. The situation makes her choice an easy one. In between what seems like a million needle pricks and MRIs, she combs through the classifieds for a job. A listing catches her eye. My employer is looking for a bright, driven professional to do my job. I want to kick and scream, but the EKG wires constrain me. It is a good thing. If I do have an aneurysm, too much stress is deadly.

I return home and start the agonizing process of telling friends and family. Some freak out. Others pepper me with questions for which I do not have an answer.

No, I do not know what “it” is.

Yes, I prayed about it.

No, I do not know if I am going to die.

The silence that follows is worse. My phone rings less and less. Friends that would race to accompany me to exclusive parties or film premiers mysteriously go missing. If they do call, the topic of my health does not enter the conversation. To them, I am merely on vacation – a Dawn on sabbatical set to return another day. I know better. I am stuck in a one-bedroom apartment with my mother with no job, no visible friends and something on my mind that is wrecking havoc on my body.

I want to receive an awakening that makes life’s nectar sweeter. Instead, the solitude forces me to say good-bye to myself. The social butterfly juggling a million projects had to go. Left in her place is a shell ready for filling. Faith, already in abundance, increases. Dreams surpass the desire to just get by. Where there was bitterness, forgiveness prevails. My ability to create things from nothing becomes the metaphor for my life. Stripped down to nothing, I have the awesome responsibility of rebuilding myself into something better.

Writing becomes a mighty weapon. The duo of pen and paper effortlessly cuts through the comments, questions and the loneliness. I suddenly realize that this malady is one of the best things to happen to me. Somewhere in the midst of the pain and symptoms, is a catalyst pushing me to live better.

I write vigorously. With each sentence, I gain a better understanding of myself. My choreoplay debuts in Los Angeles. When my heart sinks because I am not well enough to see it, I write. When film projects fall through due to my lack of strength, I write. Throughout the misdiagnosis and false starts to treatment, I write. Even when I discover that this spot on my brain is a rare and incurable tumor, I write.

The oddity of it all is that I have been fighting to keep “me” in tact. I mourn the Dawn that was, so ignorant of the Dawn that can be. My perceived value diminishes every time I use a wheelchair or walker. In moments like these, I look at my mother’s houseplants. I study the care she takes in cutting off the dead stems. Something, more beautiful, blooms in their place. I cannot help but to wonder, if the same could go for me. So, I say “good-bye” to myself and “hello” to a stronger me. It might be a wounded me, but it’s a better me.

Dawn Smith at CIGNA HQ

After Philly

When we finally reached CIGNA HQ, CEO Ed Hanway chose to shut his door to Dawn, and to the thousands of people who stood with her in the journey to Philadelphia. Instead, Dawn had a conversation with CIGNA’s Chief Medical Officer, who met her with a fistful of half promises and partial admissions of guilt. She certainly has their attention, but still doesn’t have any guarantees as to whether she’ll actually get the care she needs. Dawn and her companions on the journey will be heading home this weekend, but her fight isn’t over.

I’m convinced Dawn’s story can’t be heard enough — every time she tells someone about her illness and what CIGNA put her through, I see them starting to think differently about our health care system. Even when you already know how broken it is, hearing Dawn speak deepens your commitment to change. Each person thinking differently is a grain of sand tipping the scales of the national debate towards reform. But we need to keep pouring the sand on.
Dawn’s trip shows that the messy distractions and lies of the anti-reformers can’t withstand the voices of real people wronged by a broken health care system. It’s up to all of us to keep sharing their stories and piling on the grains of sand that will tip the scales and make health care available for all Americans.

MoveOn Ad: This Is Dawn