05 August 2009

Life, Death, Universal Healthcare

Today was a day for thinking about how ephemeral and transient life is. I found a pile of Flicker feathers on the ground – Flicker feathers are supposed to be good luck, but not for this Flicker. Probably lunch for a Coopers Hawk. Yesterday, we found one (of two) baby robins from a nest in our barn dead on the ground. It’s said that only 1 out of 9 baby birds survive to adulthood (and for birds, that’s the first couple of months of their life, tops).

On the bird theme, a few weeks ago we found a Solitary Vireo nest with two totally different eggs inside – Cowbirds are “parasitic nesters” and will lay eggs in other birds’ nests, frequently the nests of Vireos. The Vireo feeds both young, but the Cowbird being so much larger forces the Vireo young aside. We never saw the outcome, preferring to not disturb the nest any further. Did either bird have more of a right to life?

On the other side of the coin, last summer we found a baby Cedar Waxwing on our lawn. There was no parent bird anywhere around; it had obviously fallen from a nest; and we know enough about birds to know that it would not have survived the night. We fed it mashed-up berries for 2 weeks until it could fly and (hopefully) survive on its own. We would have been derelict if we had not tried to save its life. (And, we think, we succeeded, as it returned to our porch for a couple of weeks following.)

A few weeks ago we had dinner with neighbors who’d just returned from Scotland and Ireland. We were discussing the “Clearances Villages” of Scotland (which we’d seen on a recent trip ourselves) and the Irish potato famine. We noted how life had very little value until maybe just a hundred years ago. Our neighbor is a physician, and even he concurred. (The Clearances Villages were towns on, mostly, the Isle of Skye, where the landlords decided in the mid 1800s that sheep were more valuable than people, and forcibly evicted all the residents. Many moved to Nova Scotia – “new Scotland” – but many also died.)

On the public consciousness now is the whole healthcare debate. How can any modern culture NOT believe in universal healthcare. Yes, socialized medicine, a la Cuba, France, Canada, England, and, oh, just about every other country in the world. Conversely, American healthcare tries to treat everything, in a vain effort to extract a few more days, weeks, months of life. But at what quality? My wife’s stepfather passed away a couple of years ago, suffering hospitalization, strokes, and other indignities in his final years. To what benefit? Might he have died with a bit more dignity if he’d had less “save-a-life” care and more preventive (and educational) care earlier in life?

Over dinner that night, our physician neighbor said that only 25% of all healthcare dollars actually go to treating patients. I was surprised it was that high. Is there any reason any health insurance company in America should even be in existence? As a society, we owe universal care – and, as I said, universal prevention – to every citizen.