“Just remember,” the oncologist told my friend Lee, “you are in charge of your own health. We work for you.” As Obamacare continues to be assailed in the courts and Congress, amid dark visions of rationed care, death panels and bureaucratic doctors – and along dishearteningly partisan lines – one physician’s words remind us that the issue, in the end, is not about politics but about human health and human dignity.
It’s perhaps worth noting that the doctor practices in Scotland, where as part of Britain’s national health system, he is a government employee. He also makes house calls and has given Lee his cell-phone number and told him to use it any time, night or day.
I have come to Glasgow to visit Lee, who has been my friend for 55 years. He has esophageal cancer, which is not a diagnosis you want anywhere, but better in Britain than many places I can think of – particularly if, like Lee, you are poor and live alone. The system isn’t perfect – when Lee had a stent inserted in his chest, he recovered in a hospital ward reminiscent of World War I movies – but it seems a far cry from the rants of American radio hosts. Those with cancer even receive a government stipend, public recognition that the disease carries enough indignities without piling poverty on top.
It’s hard to believe, I know, that this bureaucratic system treats Lee, not as a patient, but as a person. But it does.