Wednesday, December 10, 2003

A day at the hospital

My son David has a range of health problems. In the last three weeks, for example, he has seen a cardiologist, a gastroenterologist and an endocrinologist. He is scheduled for surgery in January for something else. And so on. Despite all that, he is a normal kid living nearly a normal life.

Today he was in the Duke Children's Hospital, and I spent the day with him there.

A children's hospital puts life into clear perspective. As David and I walked through the different parts of the hospital, we saw sick kids of every possible description -- retarded kids, paralyzed kids, kids with amputations, kids in wheel chairs breathing from tubes. David's procedure was administered in an area where many of the kids with cancer get chemotherapy. The kids are bald or have little wisps of hair left. They often vomit as the drugs are administered. There are babies, toddlers, kindergartners, teens. For some, their IV lines snake up their shirts to permanent sites in the chest because they are hooked to IVs so much. Many have driven hundreds of miles for treatment, then go home and drive back on a regular schedule. All that I can do is get down on my knees and give thanks for my blessings every time I visit a children's hospital. David has problems, but at least he can eat, go to sleep at night and go to school the next day.

The other thing about a children's hospital is what it shows about human beings. When we put our minds and our resources to it, we can build amazing things. I get that same feeling when I walk into a school. We -- the citizens of the United States -- have agreed as a group that caring for and educating our children is important. We have agreed as a group to allocate the necessary resources. We have people from the community who bring their skills and talents to work each day. The kids at school get fed and are safe. They have the classrooms, the media center, the library, the TVs, the computers, the books, the tables and chairs. In the hospital there is an amazing array of technology, and medical science understands more and more every day. We've built all that by agreeing it is important. And it all works.

It makes me grateful, and it makes me think how lucky my family is. By no means do we live an "extravagant" lifestyle by American standards. Right now we live in a house in Cary, NC. Earlier this year we lived in an apartment nearby. It had a swimming pool, a fitness facility and a lighted tennis court. The rent on that three-bedroom apartment was $1,000 per month. The mortgage on the house is not much more.

At this moment I am warm at 72 degrees despite the outdoor temperature of 40 degrees F. In the summer I have central air conditioning to keep me cool. I am able to drive less than two miles to three different shopping centers and over two dozen restaurants, including three all-you-can-eat buffets that cost less than $8 per person. Or I can drive to several grocery stores stocked with thousands of ready-to-eat food products at the lowest prices ever seen by humanity. I can watch 80 channels on cable with my TV, surf the Internet or play a game with the computer, call people on the cordless phone or my cell phone or my wife's cell phone, wash my clothes in the washer and dry them in the dryer, play a DVD that I can rent for $3, take a warm shower, and flip on any of the dozens of light switches when it is dark.

If I get suddenly ill I can call 911 and a team of extremely competent people will be at my door in less than five minutes to transport me to one of the three modern, fully equipped emergency rooms within 10 miles of my home. If I get hungry I can open the refrigerator or the pantry and cook a snack or a meal on the stove or in the microwave. If I want to travel I can fly to almost anywhere in the world from the international airport that is 10 miles away. If on a whim I decide I want to, I can drive my car to Disney World tonight and shake Mickey's hand tomorrow morning. Since it is December, there is a Christmas tree in the living room with a pile of presents underneath, strands of lights decorating the front porch and a wreath on the door. The mail arrives every day. So does the newspaper. So do the packages from FedEx and UPS. So does a nice hot pizza containing a total of 2,500 calories if I order one and pay $10. There's a scale in the bathroom that tells me I eat too much. There's a thermostat on the wall that keeps the temperature just right. There are five smoke detectors on the ceiling that will wake me in case of a fire and let me and my family get safely away from the building. Then my insurance policy will pay for the damage.

My point here is simple: We take it completely for granted, but life in America is utterly amazing. Absolutely, utterly, amazing. It all comes into perspective when you spend a day in the hospital.

Then there is the flip side. In the U.S. right now, over 40 million people are cut off from the health care system because they have no insurance. Without insurance, a hospital like this may be impossible to access. At the global level, the problems are nearly unfathomable. While we enjoy the lifestyle available to the citizens of the developed world, there are billions of people on the planet who live in some of the worst conditions imaginable. About a billion people live on $1 a day or less. That's $365 a year or less. Over half of the people on the planet live on $2 a day. That means they live in shacks or in huts cooking over burning dung. In many cases they are starving, uneducated and desperate. They are bitten by insects and infected with parasites. They are afflicted by diseases that are trivial to cure in a developed country, but they die for lack of medicine. At this moment there are millions dying of untreated diseases every year.

Pick up a World Almanac  and look at the statistics. There are nations in the third world where the infant mortality rate approaches 20%. That means that one out of every five babies dies before reaching the age of five. For comparison, in the developed world, the typical rate is 0.5%. In any developed nation, 100% of the people have access to clean drinking water. In a third world country, that number can fall as low as 12%. Access to medical care follows the same trend.

There has to be a way to solve this problem. Imagine any parent holding a dead child in his or her arms. If you are a parent, imagine one of your own children lying dead in your arms right now. Think about the immensity of that image, the unfathomable pain that the picture brings forward in your mind. It is impossible to capture it in words. Now imagine that your child is lying in your arms dead because of starvation, or exposure, or because of an easily cured disease. The tragedy of that situation is unspeakable. Yet, in a third world country, there is not a thing that you, as a parent, can do about the situation -- You know that 1 in 5 children die. It is happening so often that you are numb to it.

There are a hundred reasons why it is impossible to solve the problems of the third world. Turn on the radio and you can hear all of them repeated constantly: Government corruption, unstable governments, ethnic tensions, wrong religion, lack of religion, work ethic, ownership rights, etc. These are excuses more than reasons. They assuage guilt and let us turn our backs. However, we are an intelligent species. We can solve problems.

I can imagine the following scene, and it is probably not too far off the mark. A person from a developed nation like the U.S. dies of old age and arrives at the gates of heaven. The gatekeeper opens his file and looks at him with a mixture of disappointment and pity, "I see by your file that you come from a developed nation," the gatekeeper says. "I see that you lived in a comfortable home with central heat and air conditioning. That you ate so much good food that you are 45 pounds overweight. That you drove a nice automobile everywhere you went and were able to take two warm showers every day. I am afraid that you and everyone like you is sent straight to hell. And with good reason. The fact that you allowed the conditions that exist in the third world today, without doing a thing to stop them, sentences you to eternal damnation. Good day." And with that, the gate keeper pulls a lever. The lever releases a trap door. The trap door drops the victim into a chute straight to hell. As the trap door opens, a huge tongue of fire leaps skyward and then is immediately extinguished as the trap door snaps shut again.

How could a just and loving God allow any middle-class or wealthy American into heaven given what we know happens in the third world? We live in the most powerful nation on Earth. We have the ability to solve starvation and disease throughout the world, but we lack the will, or even the notion. Some of the solutions are simple. Instead of paying people in the third world pennies per hour for their labor, we could pay them minimum wage. Why do we say to them, in their poverty and desperation, "We'll pay you a dime an hour. And really, what choice do you have?" Why are we so amazingly arrogant like that?

Even within our own borders in the U.S. there are tens of millions of people living in poverty, tens of millions more living on the edge of poverty, and we are unable to solve that simple problem. More than 40 million people lack health insurance here. We could begin to solve these problems easily if we chose to.

Perhaps Iraq is a model for the future. Right now, Iraq is not working particularly well -- I realize that. Part of that is arrogance. Part is ignorance. Part is inexperience. Part is pork barrel and greed. Part is fate. But the basic idea is interesting.
  1. Remove a dysfunctional government.
  2. Pump in the seed money needed for infrastructure.
  3. Create a democratic government and a capitalistic economy that functions like those in the developed world.
  4. Help the new nation along the path to success.
If we could get the bugs ironed out so the process works efficiently, eliminate the people working to siphon money out for their own benefit, and then repeat that process in places like Ethiopia, it could be a huge win. $100 billion spent in a place like Ethiopia would bring remarkable change.

It has been a long day... It certainly puts things into perspective.

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