I began writing this in the ICU unit of a children's hospital in Florida. Ten feet away, my wife was sleeping in a hospital bed, curled around my five year-old daughter Riley. Riley was hooked to two IVs - one for steroids and one for blood pressure medication - so she had to sleep with her arms straightened at her sides.Riley had been diagnosed with something called Nephrotic Syndrome. Her blood pressure was high - within the stroke range even for an adult - and the doctors and nurses had been trying different medications in the hope that her blood pressure would go down to normal. At around 2 a.m. in the morning, they would find the right medicine.
But at that moment, we didn't know that.
I thought about different things there in the dark ICU room, as one of Riley's favorite Scooby Doo DVDs played over an over. I thought about a ritual that Riley performs when I pick her up from pre-school on Mondays. As soon as I walk through the gate to her school yard, she backs up, plants her feet and races toward me. Then she jumps. My only job is to catch this lanky, golden juggernaut girl and then stagger back - as if she has almost knocked me over. Riley doesn't like it as much if I don't stagger. The purpose of her leap is to overwhelm me.
And she does.
That night I also thought about health insurance. What if we didn't have it? Riley didn't seem that sick at first, but we took her to the doctor's office just in case. What if we had waited because we didn't have the money?
Two weeks after Riley left the hospital, I was repairing a computer at customer's house when the customer began talking politics. In general, he felt that President Obama was going to bankrupt the country. I've heard this stuff before, sometimes from friends, and I try to keep my responses measured. I do this because it's the polite thing to do, but I also do this because even though I voted for Obama, I have no idea how this is going to turn out. I'm not an economist.
But then the customer started talking about socialized medicine. I tried to steer him away from the conversation.
"My daughter just got out of the hospital," I said. "Every time I see something about universal coverage on the news, I think about her. I'm probably not the most rational about the subject."
The man persisted. "You're living proof, though. You've got a job and you've got medical coverage. Almost everyone can afford medical coverage. The problem is that you've got people who would rather spend the premium on other things..."
I flinched because I thought he might be the kind of person to end that sentence with "...like spinners and rims."
But he didn't. He seemed to sincerely believe that our medical system was in great shape.
I didn't try to change his mind. I'm not a preacher, either.
Riley is doing better now. Her medicine costs, thanks to health insurance, only about $300 a month. We're happy to pay this. The money is not the tough part for us.
Riley's medicine gives her something called "moonface" - meaning that her thin, sweet face has become almost round. Her cheeks are hard to the touch and her stomach swells out, too. And for the first time in my five year-old's life, she is afraid to be seen in a bathing suit. She is like Eve just after she was thrown out of the Garden of Eden - only Riley never stole an apple. We think she might be able to stop the medicine in a few weeks.
I've written this column for something like five years now. I try to keep it humorous; I exaggerate a little here; I poke a little fun there. Every now and then I make a pee pee joke for the kids and husbands. But this thing with Riley has changed me. I can't stand the national conversation about health coverage.
Most of the debate is generated by interest groups with something to sell. The purpose of their talk is not to inform us or educate us; their purpose is to overwhelm us - and they do.
So, I'm not an economist, but I'm gonna say a few things about the economy. Nor am I a preacher; but I'm gonna fucking preach a few things.
Someone you know - someone you like and admire - is going to tell you in the next few months that America doesn't need "socialized" medicine. They might even be an actual doctor. They're going to spout talking points about how it will affect job growth in a faltering economy. They might talk about how doctors will actually leave the field of medicine because they can't pay their bills. This is what you should say:
Almost nine million kids don't have health insurance, part of the almost 45 million people in the United States without any kind of health coverage. It's estimated that at least 18,000 people die each year because they lack medical insurance.
If your friend talks about America becoming Socialist - whatever that means - appeal to their rationality and point out that our libraries, police departments and fire departments are already socialized. They have been since the beginning of our country. Tell your friend that our medical infrastructure needs to be exactly like a fire department - because the health of America is dangerously close to being on fire. Appeal also to their common sense. When the next pandemic rolls through, do we really want nearly 20% of America avoiding a doctor's office?
I don't. But then, I'm not an epidemiologist. I could be wrong.
I'm just a father haunted by the thought of all the uninsured families out there that have a daughter like Riley with an undiagnosed problem. The girl is feeling a little sick, but is otherwise okay.
I wonder how long they wait.