In fact, I shouldn’t have been here for most of my life. Fifty-five years ago today, I was returning home from two weeks’ annual active duty in the Army Reserve. It was peacetime, so I never heard a shot fired in anger − unless you count people at the rifle range who were irritated by their low scores. But I still came within inches of being killed in the line of duty.
I was driving north on U.S. 101 near Paso Robles, California, when an elderly couple entered the freeway driving south. The problem was that they used an off-ramp instead of an on-ramp. The Highway Patrol estimated that both cars were going 50 miles per hour when they hit head-on. The driver was killed, his wife was seriously injured, both cars were demolished − not totaled, demolished − but I got out of the hospital the next day. I was treated in the same small emergency room where James Dean was pronounced dead five years earlier.
I learned how lucky I was, and how fragile life and health are. I did the most fervent praying of my life on a Greyhound bus coming home. I promised the Lord to repay His favor by doing my best to help others. I spent most of my career in medical oncology, so I hope I fulfilled that vow at least to a small degree.
And I learned something else, a lesson that was even more painful. Two weeks after the accident, I was able to return to the hospital where I was a first-year resident. As I hobbled down the hall, limping on my badly swollen knee, I passed a middle-aged ward clerk whom I knew as a friendly, kindly person. But I was taken aback as she greeted me by saying, “Hello, crip!”
At the time, I didn’t know whether I would recover completely. In fact, my knee still bothers me. But though she didn’t know whether my limp would be permanent, and though she worked in a hospital, she had no hesitation in insulting me publicly by calling me a cripple – in “fun,” of course.
Then I moved to a larger hospital, a county institution that was more impersonal, so I expected less sympathy. I was not disappointed. I was still limping and had a 14-stitch scar on my eyebrow. My chief knew about the accident, but he gave me a mediocre rating. He wrote that I performed my duties well, but that I showed no initiative in undertaking other activities. To me, I was straining against physical and emotional pain to do as well as I had. But to him, I was just doing a passable job and nothing more. My obvious problems made no impression on him.
So you see the painful lesson I learned. If a kindly, gray-haired lady who worked in a hospital made fun of the disabled, how would ordinary people act? If a professor of medicine had no empathy for a colleague, how much empathy would ordinary doctors have for ordinary patients, with whom they have much less in common?
It would be pleasant if children grew in empathy as they grow in height. But only weeds grow spontaneously. Flowers must be nurtured. My parents taught me to be considerate of others. And my medical training added to this quality. But I had to become a patient myself before I developed true empathy for the ill, the injured, and the disabled.
● I had to feel that I was dying − not going to die, but actually dying − before I understood the fears of others.
● I had to regain consciousness too weak to raise my hand to my face before I understood what it felt like to be helpless.
● I had to hear my ambulance use the siren before I suspected that my situation might be worse than I thought.
● I had to be put in the hands of a doctor I didn’t know, in a hospital I never heard of, before I could appreciate the anxiety of others.
● I had to have my cut face sewed up without local anesthetic, yet feel no pain, before I could appreciate the confusion felt by patients.
● I had to smell alcohol on the breath of the x-ray technician before I could appreciate the doubts felt by patients.
● I had to hear the radio news declare that I was in fair condition, but that a second victim had died and a third was in serious condition, before I comprehended how lucky I was.
● I had to keep myself awake all night because I had a head injury, and was afraid of never waking up, before I realized that frightened people may act irrationally.
● I had to get out of the hospital bed next morning, and find the sheets covered with bits of broken windshield glass, before I realized how people feel when they are unable to care for themselves, and others don’t care for them properly.
● I had to go to the wrecking yard to see my car, with the left front wheel pushed back to dashboard and the steering wheel looking like a pretzel, before I admitted that – despite medical care – if it was my time I went, and if it wasn’t I stayed.
● I had to think about the combat veterans in my Reserve unit to understand that you can serve in combat and come home unscathed, or serve in peacetime and come home in a box − and in either case, your service is honorable.
● I had to carry my suitcase and uniform unassisted – despite three broken ribs and a lacerated arm – because union rules forbade the taxi driver from entering the bus station, before I appreciated how the disabled are often hurt rather than helped by regulations.
● I had to have my infirmities ignored by bosses and coworkers before I understood that academic degrees and kindness have no relation. In fact, the relation may even be inverse. If you doubt this, recall that Josef Mengele, the camp physician at Auschwitz, had both an M.D. and a Ph.D. I’ll bet serious money that I would have gotten more consideration for my disabilities from the hospital janitors than I did from my professor and colleagues. The janitors were more likely to be regular church-goers.
● I had to be called “crip” in public before I realized that even “nice” people sometimes act cruelly to the disabled.
Given this background, perhaps you will understand why I get really upset when I read about late-term abortion, which is nothing but infanticide. Perhaps you will pardon me when I detest people who call unborn babies “just a blob of jelly.” Perhaps you will forgive my revulsion when a professor of “bioethics” claims that parents have the right to kill disabled or unwanted babies up to a month old, later increased to three years old. Perhaps you will share my anger that he remains on the faculty of Princeton.
Perhaps you will excuse my disgust when I read that China is executing more dissidents to sell their organs for transplantation, that Ukraine is killing healthy babies to use for stem-cell research, and that a German “artist” is exhibiting real human corpses.
Perhaps you will empathize when I paced the floor after I heard that brain-damaged Terri Schiavo finally died after 13 days without water, food, or even having her lips moistened with a wet cloth.
Perhaps you will grasp why I became depressed that no one did anything for Terri – not the doctors and nurses who are sworn to care for the sick; not the police officers who are sworn to protect the public; not the religious people who claim to believe we are all created in God’s image; and not the politicians, lawyers, and judges who claim to believe in the Constitution.
After all, I’ve been disabled and helpless myself, if only for a short time.
Perhaps you will share my anxiety when our president declares that the disabled might get pain pills instead of hip replacements, and that the elderly should get cardiac pacemakers only if it “saves money.” And perhaps you will understand my distress when few people protested, or even noticed.
Perhaps you will understand my regret that “experts” chose the term “persistent vegetative state” instead of “persistent semi-coma.” Thinking of human beings as vegetables enables us to dehumanize them.
You see, if I had been hit on the head a bit harder, I might have been there myself. Would I want to live like Terri Schiavo? No. But I also wouldn’t want to live like homeless persons. That doesn’t give me the right to drive to a freeway underpass and shoot them. My fear of disability is my problem – it doesn’t entitle me to kill you if you become disabled. It is not James Bond’s double-0 license, which entitled him to kill anyone who got in his way.
Perhaps you will share my dismay that “Schiavo+rutabaga” gives 1,820 hits on Google, while her name plus “turnip” gives 12,500, her name plus “broccoli” gives 76,400, her name plus “lettuce” gives 93,100, her name plus “cabbage” gives 135,000, her name plus “potato” gives 201,000 and her name plus “vegetable” gives 288,000 hits. Comparing disabled humans to vegetables is becoming acceptable, even popular.
Perhaps you will understand why these disgusting names remind me that the Nazis called the mentally or physically disabled “useless eaters” who were a “drain on the Fatherland” – and then got rid of them. Of course, we will be less frank and claim to be acting out of “compassion.” But we are looking for a solution to our Social Security and Medicare problem. Let us beware of making it the Final Solution.
The danger of saying “Hello, crip!” is that it too easily leads to saying “Goodbye, crip!”
On second thought, the title of this column may be incorrect. Perhaps I should be here after all. Perhaps the reason I am still here is to speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves − the very young, the very old, the disabled, the inconvenient, and the unwanted.
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