Being best is what one does

A few weeks ago I was planning to go out of town. I told Steve Felano we were going to a reunion of former Peace Corps Volunteers who had served in Iran. We would greet old friends and learn a great deal about what has been happening. We agreed I’d come back and report to you. 

It wasn’t to be. My wife slipped while packing, did a lot of damage to her leg and spent nearly two weeks in the hospital and rehab center. Still I had to pinch myself and remember how lucky we are. Obviously by comparison to many peoples all over the world. But also right here. We discovered that a friend of ours was admitted for a broken leg a week before. My wife had surgery the day after she broke her leg. Our friend became so frustrated after a week in the hospital that he took himself out and arranged for surgery which finally took place nearly two weeks after his accident, even though he had insurance. And the hospital wants to be paid for that lengthy period of inattention.

I told this to some friends of ours and they started telling stories about how they had had to advocate for other people to get proper care. One described a woman being put off for weeks just to get a diagnostic test. My friend called a physician he knew who was a medical administrator who responded that it was in fact an emergency and arranged surgery the next day. 

The hospitals involved thought they were among the best. But best is what one does, not what one is. One can slip from best to worst by assuming everything is fine.  

What’s true about hospitals is also true about countries. This country’s successes were not accidents. Our leaders, starting with George Washington and his colleagues, were dedicated to opening the country up, creating the transportation links that would unleash the wealth of the country, creating the banking system that would enable investment in our future, a postal system that kept us in touch, and took steps to protect the public health. Our leaders, statesmen, politicians, people who were in government, continued to work on opening the country’s transportation links, developing a public health system, and supervising our banking system.  

But all that can fall apart quite quickly for failure to maintain and keep it up to date. And in fact we’ve seen what happened when we stepped back and let the bankers do whatever they wanted. We’ve watched bridges crumble, some coming down with the people on them.  

Most of the people who endlessly repeat that we’re the best haven’t bothered to notice how other peoples are leapfrogging some of the infrastructure that was once in the forefront of the world. 

Nations, like gardens, need tending. My wife will walk again. It’s the country I worry about.

This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 6, 2011. 

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