When I heard of Senator Ted Kennedy’s passing, I immediately thought of my father after his near-fatal road accident. His skull fractured with internal bleeding in his head sent him into violent fits and temporarily erased his memories of me. I had to hold him down onto the bed so that he would not hurt himself and pull out the tubes sustaining his life.
All that time, I kept thinking “why must I be the one doing this?” I should not have been the one to restrain my father. Afterwards, I discovered that the hospital did not assign enough nurses to the floor to adequately attend to all the critical care patients. At this moment, I realized how much we are not meant to be alone.
At one time, we as a nation believed that our survival and prosperity depended on us being each other’s keeper and that when the least of us fall, we collapse as a people. Our country created a public safety net because we embraced this idea –“No family or individual should face tragedy by themselves.”
Regardless of our political and moral views of him, Senator Ted Kennedy hails from a family, who at their very best, represents this notion of service and sacrifice. The three Kennedy brothers John, Robert, Ted called upon the best of us. “…Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country…” began John and created the Peace Corps. Robert built a presidential campaign based on listening to the voices of the unheard and ignored. Ted, the “Lion of the Senate”, whose heavy body of legislative work included the Ryan White Care Act which helped care for those suffering with AIDS, held the banner for healthcare reform higher than anyone in the halls of Congress.
In 1973, the doctors diagnosed Ted Kennedy’s 12-year old son with bone cancer and he sat and prayed by his son’s bedside as his son underwent months of chemotherapy. Fortunately, his son survived and successfully recovered. However, the other families he met in the hospital were not as fortunate: “Our family had the necessary resources as well as excellent insurance coverage. But other heartbroken parents pleaded with the doctors: ‘What chance does my child have if I can only afford half of the prescribed treatments? Or two thirds? I’ve sold everything. I’ve mortgaged as much as possible. ‘ No parent should suffer that torment. Not in this country. Not in the richest country in the world.”
The current ugliness of the health care debate conceals the guiding spirit of service and sacrifice behind the health care reform movement and existing universal healthcare systems. For example, we ignore why Britons across the political spectrum, have reacted so angrily to US citizens kicking around their healthcare system-the National Health Service (NHS). After the destruction of their homes during World War II, the people of Great Briton realized they had to extend a hand to each other in order to lift themselves from the rubble, to rebuild and prosper once again. NHS emerged from this new consciousness. When US critics punch their system around, which Britons acknowledge is not perfect, the attack is seen as an assault on their sense of community and responsibility to each other.
Writer Michael B. Laskoff decries our nation’s shift away from President John Kennedy’s original call for service: “So with the de facto passing of the Kennedys, we have truly reached an end. What comes next, it seems, is an age in which the operative question has changed. Today, it is: what can America do for me? This, by the way, is not the ‘me’ voice of the Generation X but rather the ‘mine’ of the Baby Boomers. That’s why I don’t think that this is really a debate about healthcare at all; its more like a desperate last stand in support of a status quo that gave us big cars, big houses, and big credit.”
Lay aside the partisan struggles and ideological battles, we must ask the real question, “Am I responsible for my neighbor?” The issue of health care access deals directly with matters of life and death. When we accept the inequality of quality health care access, do we pass judgment on the uninsured and what sentence do we pass ? Should we ignore over 42 million women, men and children without adequate health coverage? Like the proverbial Cain, who responded to God’s inquiry of Abel’s absence with “I know not; am I my brother’s keeper?,” we may in truth may be the defacto murderers of one another.
When my father miraculously recovered and continues to heal to this day, my mother told me he would not have lived if it wasn’t for me. He was a small business owner without health care insurance and his medical bills totaled over a million dollars after the first month.
My mother’s health care policy, secured when we successfully organized a union at her hospital, covered the costs. I cried as much hearing her say those words as when I saw him on the hospital bed that first time.
In the words of US Senator Ted Kennedy, “we will end the disgrace of America as the only major industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t guarantee health care for all of its people.”