When I was a kid, my mom would walk me from our flat on Bradford Street down to Dr. Jack’s brownstone office on the border of Albany’s Washington Park. Even now I can recall the giant yellow pine blocks, smoothed to a semi-gloss sheen over the years by innumerable toddlers’ hands. I’d pull them from the corner toy box to build grand castles and forts there in his rubbing alcohol-redolent waiting room.
But beyond those tactile and olfactory memories, I remember the vaccination shots he’d give me for any number of kids’ diseases, most especially that polio shot. But I don’t remember Mom paying anyone any money, which in our house was usually as scarce as enough real beds for everyone to have his own. But Dr. Jack must have gotten paid his couple of bucks because he didn’t hesitate to drive to our house and give me another shot when I got really sick one snowy Saturday.
When I got older, I had to visit the County Health Building in the big parking lot on Pearl Street, at the bottom of Morton Avenue, in the down-sliding neighborhood that once served as the pastures for Albany’s buckle-shoed, ruminant-owning swells and a chicken sufficed as a co-pay. I remember seeing all the little brown and black kids sitting with their moms and grandmas, waiting to get their shots. It never occurred to me if they had to pay for their pointed opportunities to avoid the kind of childhood diseases I did.
It wasn’t until I had to dig into my own pocket for a visit to the doctor, ponying up some cash for necessary medication, paying the hospital for sewing up another of my skull’s collisions with reality or saving my life when an asthma attack almost removed me from it, that I realized what a blessing and burden is the quid pro quo for some sawbones to exercise their Hippocratic Oaths.
These memories of those long-past times don’t surface very often. In fact, I’d forgotten them, even when, check in hand, I brought our girls to their pediatrician for all their shots. Even when my own health speed bumps brought me enough pause for thought. Even as I bumped up against mortality and Medicare.
That was, until this week, as I watched the proceedings of the United States Senate in attempting to dump and probably not even replace the law established to help people get healthy without having to give up not only a chicken, but the whole damn farm. It forced me to scour my recollection-seeping mind to recall the history I share with America’s post-World War Two healthcare system.
In my life, I’ve seen kids in leg braces and iron lungs, draped in pox scars and being born without limbs because their pregnant mom took a medication to help her get over morning sickness. I’ve known kids with cancer who now are grandparents like me. I’ve seen the advent of machines that will keep you alive until modern science, magic and prayer can get you better. And I’ve given the nod to turn them off.
These days, I see how much of my meager assets I spend on keeping a pretty healthy family pretty healthy and wonder how those little girls in the County Health Office and the little boys up in the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation waiting on their free vaccinations managed to do that in their lives. And, yeah, I know I’m paying for some of that, but I know that now they can have the health insurance they never could before if they ever need it. It’s not their fault it costs so damn much. It’s the system’s.
It’s a system that’s grown as creaky, expensive and imperfect as I have in sixty-odd years and I’d like to see both of us healthier before I have to bid you all goodbye. But I’d never ask my family to kill me first in order to cure me. And that’s not me talking the dreaded P word—Politics. Just some old guy’s sore back, shaking hands, stiff-walled heart still pushing what few undiluted drops remain of his human decency and common sense.
I ramble, therefore I am. A true change of pace. But I’ve paid my dues for this pulpit and sickbed. Thank God I’m an American who’s free to express myself here and who’s lived long enough to see how we as a nation can make bad things get better. But I also know that’s if we all get pointed in roughly the same direction, and to accomplish that we’ll have to accept the individual and communal guidance of “the better angels of our nature.”