Take deep breath, smile
By Tom Mendel , originally published on Cavalier Daily, March 28, 2012
The Guatemalan morning was particularly warm and humid. The air smelled thick. We peeled back our patient’s eye patch in the Clinica Ezell’s post-operative room and wiped away the ointment.
This was the first time our patient could see in ten years. The day before, a surgical team removed a hard, opaque, yellow cataract from within her eye and replaced it with a pristine, clear, donated synthetic lens.
Our patient, who could previously only just manage to distinguish the difference between night and day and could not even see a hand waving in front of her face, could easily count fingers from five feet away. A smile cracked across her very wrinkled and warm face. We smiled too.
I consider myself very blessed to have experienced a week in Guatemala treating the blind. Time spent there with an expert optometrist and compassionate ophthalmologist left me with a spiritual and clinical high I have not tasted in some years.
When I landed back in the States and awaited my connecting flight, the terminal gate television threw my way a handful of the unrelenting banter about our own health care system.
Yes, it is true the United States spends more than 17 percent of its GDP on health care, which is greater than our peer economic nations. The countries with the next most expensive health care systems each spend just 12 percent of their own GDP.
It is certainly possible to make a strong argument health care costs are the single greatest threat to our national security. We cannot say with absolute certainty which country may attack our shores in the future, but the numbers demonstrate our heath care system will bankrupt us by then if we do not change our current trajectory.
Yes, our system is riddled with poorly designed incentives and moral quirks which befuddle patients, doctors and politicians alike. I have seen irrationalities myself when working in private practices, as well as academic medicine.
We need to foster public discourse to tackle philosophically charged and vexing issues. Those issues and alternative solutions keep me up at night.
But before the talk radio pundits and intentionally controversial talking heads spin my thoughts to the negative and away from a hope for tomorrow, I want to take a pause.
While health care reform presents a serious and complex challenge, I feel blessed to live in a place where the technology, training and economy permit cataract removal years before a patient loses all vision. To obtain my malaria prophylaxis for my international trip, I only had to email my primary care physician at the University, costing me only four dollars and fewer minutes of time.
I found myself uninsured for some months after college and had to seek out health insurance on my own, paid for with precious financial aid money. I understand a small dose of the chaos which characterizes our very own health care system.
Reform we must, but we have leaped taller hurdles in our national history. At the end of the day, I am thankful the problem facing our nation is we spend too much on health care, rather than too little.