(Written the Tuesday before Thanksgiving 2010)
This morning, someone I’ve never met cut smoothly into my father’s chest with a scalpel.
He gently (I imagine gently, I hope gently), wrenched my father’s ribs open just enough to reach his topmost artery, the one curled right over his pumping bleeding heart.
When I imagine it, I imagine that there must be blood pooling in my father’s chest cavity. I don’t know if that’s true. I imagine my father pale and small and asleep, not there, gone someplace nowhere.
The cavity in my father’s chest is private, is a secret, is something no one should see, but this man I have never met has seen inside my father’s chest, and he knows if it bleeds.
The artery was, is, hard with fast-setting cement that my father’s body made. It is one hundred percent blocked. That’s what the man I’ve never met said. That’s what the cardiologist said. That’s what my mother said. The man I’ve never met ripped (I don’t know how else you sneak an entire length of vein out of a body. Do you glide it? Do you snip it? How do you keep it intact? How do you keep it strong? How do you how do you how do you? Do you uncurl it?) a vein out of my father’s shoulder and moved it. He moved the vein to my father’s heart. Now it’s an artery. Now it connects directly to my father’s heart. Now my father’s blood bypasses the messed-up cement artery like cars on a brand-new highway.
The only framework I have for imagining this is Grey’s Anatomy, pretty people in tasteful blue scrubs working frantically over my father in just-so light.
I couldn’t go because my mother wanted me to go to my last classes before Thanksgiving. My brother cried and we held each other because our father, our father who has been vegan for six months, our father who has never had high cholesterol, our father who exercises every day, our father who advises doctoral students how to write, our father who is the most optimistic person we know and also the kindest, our father who turned sixty and grew his hair to his shoulders, our father who believes in everyone he meets, our father who could get along with a human snake, our father who always takes the blame when we don’t do our dishes, our father who is the best the best the best the best,
lay on a table this morning gone someplace nowhere and someone I’ve never met gently wrenched his chest open to fix his heart.
Three days ago he went for a checkup and told a nurse practitioner he felt winded lately and that the muscles along his spine between his shoulder blades, his back heart, clenched tight and tense. He trotted on a treadmill with wires taped onto his skin (or maybe the nodes have sticky parts on them already, pads of skin-glue), and the nurse practitioner listened hard to the inside of my father’s body and she sent him the very next day to a cardiologist.
The cardiologist arrowed blue ink through my father’s blood so that it glowed ethereal in his body. And when he looked at my father’s heart squeezing and breathing in my father’s chest he saw in one artery plaque highlighted white and ugly. The other arteries were bigger and thicker than most arteries and they had taken over because their neighbor, the one they’d lived with for a lifetime, was suffocated.
The very following day, today, my father lay on a table and a man I’ve never met cut smoothly into his chest to play musical chairs with veins.
Now my father is okay and sewn up and sleepy and healthy in ICU.
He woke up briefly and told my mother how glad he was the universal health care bill passed.
My father has been working for universal health care, insurance for every person in America, since before Obama came into office. He voted Obama in mainly because of his universal health care plan. My father has always voted but mostly passively. Lately, in his middle age, my father became active. He went to town hall meetings. He put a sign in his yard.
He finally told his conservative friends how he felt about politics, because of universal health care.
I have to say, I took longer to come around. I didn’t opine one way or the other for awhile, because I didn’t understand it. I’m a little ashamed to say but not very, because I’ve observed that few people really understand health insurance in this country or the universal health care bill. I decided not to decide until I gained facts and I was sure.
Then I went to South Africa and I worked in a tuberculosis hospital for people under 3 years old and I held toddlers who clung to me because they didn’t have any parents because their parents, in Limpopo or Durban, died of HIV/AIDS. And I was told these toddlers were lucky because they got into the hospital, which was run by the government and had a decades-long waiting list.
Then I took Global Health, Local Health in the geography department at UT, and Medical Anthropology, and Gender and Health, and I learned about people all around the world rotting from fistulas and selling their organs for food money and dying from HIV not because there’s not medicine, but because they can’t afford it.
And I learned about people in America.
People in America clog up your emergency rooms because they don’t have insurance for a regular checkup.
People in America skip medication and doctor visits for small-time sicknesses because they can’t afford to take a day off work, or two days off work, because their jerk bosses are allowed to fire them for catching a cold. Then these American people develop pneumonia and clog up your emergency rooms, how annoying, because they are trying hard not to die.
People in America feel like their backs are tight and tense, and they feel a little winded.
People in America sometimes go in because they’re worried, even though they can’t afford it, and a nurse practitioner expensively tells them they should go see a cardiologist.
People in America wait until they’ve got some money saved up and then they go see the cardiologist.
If it’s not too late, people in America get blue ink injected into their veins and they see their arteries unpleasantly highlighted with plaque.
People in America sit down hard, and people in America swallow or try to swallow but they can’t because there’s something bulbous in their throats, and people in America wait until they get to their cars to let a whine, a high small noise that sounds like it’s coming from someone else, emit from their vocal folds, and people in America pull over because they can’t see because they’re crying and they can’t figure out how to tell their wives and their children and their best friends that they will go bankrupt because they cannot afford, they simply do not have, the money for a surgery tomorrow, which is when they need it.
And this is what I found, after two years of deep observation and personal exploration:
I believe health is a right, not a privilege.
People seem to be misguided on this. People seem to think that having access to the best health care is a privilege only for somebody who was born in some life that led them to working in a job with benefits and sick leave.
But this is incorrect. I’m happy to point out the mistake.
Health, access to the best health care available, is a right even for people who have applied to ninety jobs in two months without a single interview offer. Health is a right even for people who aren’t white! Health is a right even for women who give birth, and even for women who breastfeed in public. Health is a right even for people who don’t speak English.
Health is a right.
Health is a RIGHT.
We are the luckiest family in the whole world. Only a little more than twelve hours after a cardiologist pointed out the harshly highlighted plaque in my father’s artery, my father was asleep gone someplace nowhere on an operating table while someone I’ve never met cut smoothly into my father’s chest. In six months my father will be healthier than he has been in years, and also he will retain his house and his car and his serenity. My brother and I can keep going to college and my parents can occasionally go camping in Yellowstone and shopping in Santa Fe.
Someone I’ve never met immediately saved my father’s life because my father has insurance.
My father was privileged to be able to claim his right to health.
Thank God. Thank God.
Thanks to my father’s parents for giving birth to him in America. Thanks to my father for working hard and for a university.
Thanks to Obama.
Because now maybe someone else’s father won’t have to cry in his car on the way home as he contemplates how he’ll tell his wife and children and best friends that he will soon be bankrupt, and instead he’ll be like my father is now, okay and sewn up and sleepy and healthy in ICU.