My patients are America


Dear Congress:

For the vast majority of you, I am not your constituent.  But you should listen to me anyway.  I am writing to show you that health care in America is not a political issue; it is a human one.  The same can be said for immigration or education or any other issue that you work on. Let my patients explain this for me.

I walk into clinic to a full schedule, a common event for most physicians.  The full days can be busy, but at least it means my patients are being tended to and have access to see me before they require hospitalization (and the increased cost that goes along with it).

My first patient is a mother of three with diabetes, who happens to also be Muslim.  She does not want to talk about her diabetes today.  Instead, she wants to talk about religion.  Or more specifically, the fact that some of her neighbors do not respect her religion or her right to live in the United States because of what they see on the news.  I am not an expert in religion, nor religious intolerance, and no prescription I write can help with this problem. I listen anyway.  She is scared of the direction our country is headed.  I am too.

My next patient is a factory worker with a recent heart attack and many new medications to pay for.  He worries about his job becoming automated.  And if his job is cut, his health insurance goes with it.   He believes the country’s president will save his health insurance and job.  I want to tell him he is wrong, that he was sold a lie to empower an individual and a party, but I do not like to bring politics into my office (if only politicians wouldn’t bring health care into theirs).  I just shrug, and I assure him I will see him no matter what.

My last patient before lunch is a father of four with lung cancer.  He is a beneficiary of the Affordable Care Act and believes it saved his life because it allowed him to get his screening CT scan that caught his cancer early.  He is afraid that his insurance may be taken away because of our current political environment.  I nod, wishing I could refute what he just said, but I cannot.  Washington no longer cares about good policy, only “winning” politics for the party in power.

After lunch, the patients and their stories keep coming: A homeless veteran who has health insurance but not a home; an African American woman whose teenaged son was recently murdered after being shot during a pickup basketball game;  a Mexican woman whose husband was recently deported despite living in the United States since he was a teenager.  Only in America.  I practice very little medicine on this day. But I do listen, and I think my patients appreciate me for that.  Voters will probably feel the same.

My patients, in a typical day, make up America.  They are America.  And like our health care system, and our political system (and many of my patients because of these systems), America is broken.

The path to fixing this country is not taking away health insurance or more guns or religious intolerance. It is perspective.  It is empathy.  It is strength and courage and putting country before party or self.  If you followed me around in clinic every day and listened to my patients’ stories, would you believe what you do?  I truly hope not.


A concerned physician

Timothy Dempsey is a pulmonary physician.

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