Thursday, January 13, 2011

President Obama's Tucson Speech

I'm in Washington DC for three days of meetings of an Institute of Medicine committee whose assignment is to advise Secretary Sebelius on the interpretation of "essential health benefits," a key part of the health reform law.

I just read President Obama's Tucson speech on line. He was at his eloquent best. I found his summing up especially moving, for reasons connected to the work I'm doing in DC and to the practice of medicine itself:
But what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.

After all, that's what most of us do when we lose someone in our family – especially if the loss is unexpected. We're shaken from our routines, and forced to look inward. We reflect on the past. Did we spend enough time with an aging parent, we wonder. Did we express our gratitude for all the sacrifices they made for us? Did we tell a spouse just how desperately we loved them, not just once in awhile but every single day?

So sudden loss causes us to look backward – but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us. We may ask ourselves if we've shown enough kindness and generosity and compassion to the people in our lives. Perhaps we question whether we are doing right by our children, or our community, and whether our priorities are in order. We recognize our own mortality, and are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame – but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in bettering the lives of others.
What the President said captures something at the heart of a career in health care. The intimate relationship with patients - the responsibility for ministering to their needs in the best way we can - can do just what the President said a deep tragedy like the killings in Tucson can do. In entering into other lives we are prompted to go more deeply into our own. If we're lucky, our contact with patients encourages humility, deepens out moral imagination, strengthens our capacity for empathy and our sense of connection to the wider community of humankind. And engaging deeply with the aims of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act also brings us into contact with our society's effort to minister to people in need.

For me, the President's meditation on the tragedy was leadership at its bet!

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