Kent Bottles: Are Tornados and Health Care Reform Related?
Last Wednesday, I did not think too much when I heard tornado sirens go off in St. Paul while I participated in a Minnesota Community Measurement Board retreat. We barely noticed the annoying noise and continued to plan for the future of public reporting of health care outcomes information that could help providers and consumers achieve better health. I was relieved to find that the rain had largely subsided when at 4:30 p.m. I made my way to my red Prius in the parking lot. Remembering that I had started a load of laundry, I decided to swing by my home on the way back to the ICSI office to catch up on emails.
The first clue that something was amiss was that I could not drive over to Portland Ave. from 32nd St. because yellow caution tape and a police officer blocked my way. The second clue was that several large trees on 4th Ave. were uprooted and blocking the street. By using adjacent alleys, I was able to park on 33rd St. I found my laundry clean but not dry. The electricity was off, but the tornado that had touched down in my neighborhood about 1:50 p.m. had left the house unscathed.
I spent the next several hours wandering around my neighborhood. About 40 homes were damaged, and trees were strewn all over the place: on the top of cars, homes, and blocking streets. I learned that the entire episode lasted about five seconds, the warning sirens went off after the episode was over, and that the tornado sounded like a freight train. I also learned that nobody had been seriously hurt or killed.
The mood of the neighborhood was one of shock, disorientation, and surprise. But there was also for me an unexpected joy. We all talked to one another without the social alienation that I sometimes felt in my neighborhood of professionals fixing up old houses and Hispanic and Somali immigrants and African-Americans renting houses in need of repair. The dangerous, shared random natural event had affected all of us and seemed to bring us together in the aftermath of the destruction. Our neighborhood community seemed closer because we had a common purpose of trying to help each other during a time of unexpected danger. I was happy as I strolled and observed young people drinking beer and throwing bean bags into slanted boards with holes, contractors swarming about looking for work to fix roofs and cut up trees, and neighbors starting barbeques to cook burgers. There was almost a carnival atmosphere.
I recently stumbled upon a book (A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit) that believes my sense of community and joy after the tornado is not unusual. By examining the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Halifax munitions explosion of 1917, the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, 9/11, and Katrina, Solnit finds that people experience “an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive” that provides a “window into social desire and possibility.” According to Solnit, the response I felt wandering my South Minneapolis neighborhood is “a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be, and what else our society could become.” Solnit believes “the recovery of this purpose and closeness without crisis or pressure is the great contemporary task of being human.”
I cannot help reflect on what my feelings last Wednesday and upon reading A Paradise Built in Hell mean for the current health care reform debate. We are facing a status quo in health care that is not financially sustainable, that harms our employers competing in a global marketplace, and that does not provide patient-centered care with excellent outcomes. And yet I see little in the current debate that indicates a community pulling together to help everyone affected by the situation that is often described as “a disaster” or “a crisis.” Where is the “emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive.”
“I don’t want to have things cut from what I need,” said Sandy Burd, 64. “If I’m 65 and need an MRI I don’t want them to say I’m sorry but it has to go to someone who’s 45.” “What they’re trying to do – Obama is – is take from the senior citizens and give to the poor and the illegal immigrants,” Mr. Goldman said.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/21/health/policy/21housecall.html?em)
Health care reform has so far divided not united Americans. The elderly are afraid of losing out to the poor and the immigrants. The Republicans are afraid of giving Obama a legislative victory that will make it more difficult to win back the Congress and the White House. Disinformation and scare tactics seem to be the strategy of the day. A recent blog documents 14 myths and distortions and falsehoods being circulated in the current debate (http://bit.ly/1wgmZX). Is there any way to bring the atmosphere and feeling of togetherness that I felt last Wednesday in South Minneapolis to the health care debate? Aren’t we all Minnesotans and Americans who want to be healthy and well? Don’t we share values and hopes and dreams?