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There But For The Grace…

John Edwards speaks to James Lowe, in Wise, Virginia in July of 2007. 

This today in the NYTimes Magazine needs discussion:

It was 3 a.m. at the Wise County Fairgrounds in Virginia — Friday, July 20, 2007 — the start of a rainy Appalachian morning. Outside the gates, people lay in their trucks or in tents pitched along the grassy parking lot, waiting for their chance to have their medical needs treated at no charge — part of an annual three-day “expedition” led by a volunteer medical relief corps called Remote Area Medical.

The group, most often referred to as RAM, has sent health expeditions to countries like Guyana, India, Tanzania and Haiti, but increasingly its work is in the United States, where 47 million people — more than 15 percent of the population — live without health insurance….

And so each summer, shortly after the Virginia-Kentucky District Fair and Horse Show wraps up at the fairgrounds, members of Virginia Lions Clubs start bleaching the premises, readying them for RAM’s volunteers, who, working in animal stalls and beneath makeshift tents, provide everything from teeth cleaning and free eyeglasses to radiology and minor surgery….more than 800 people already were waiting in line. Over the next three days, some 2,500 patients would receive care, but at least several hundred, Brock estimates, would be turned away….

We are one of the richest countries in the world, and these people camp out with their children in an abandoned fairground, scrambling to be one of the few at a barely sterilized horse stall in a sea of people who are equally desperate — and grateful — to receive medical care.

In America.

Back in July, 2007, the Edwards campaign visited rural Appalachian Virginia.  I remembered seeing this video from the campaign, because the man in it — James Lowe — had such a poignant, difficult story to tell.  That he could tell it at all was due to the gift of medical care from those same doctors, who stepped in to help him after James had spent a lifetime — close to 50 years — in silence.  From Time Magazine:

Lowe is 51 years old, a disabled coal miner from the hollows of Eastern Kentucky. He has never been one to get up in front of a crowd. Until last year, he wouldn’t have been able to speak to the crowd even if he wanted to. He was born with a severe cleft palate; when he tried to talk he could not make himself understood, so after a while he stopped trying. He was one of 10 children, born to parents too poor to pay for the treatment he needed, and of course there was no insurance. Embarrassed by his condition, Lowe dropped out of school in fifth grade without learning to read or write, and eventually followed his father into the mines — and still couldn’t afford treatment. Twenty-three years ago he was partially paralyzed in a mining accident and could no longer perform manual labor. That didn’t leave him many options.

Lowe lived a mute and by his own account diminished life for five decades in all before he finally got a break last year. He made it happen by standing in line for 13 hours at the Wise Country Fairgrounds in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, where a nonprofit volunteer group called the Rural Area Medical Health Expedition once a year provides free medical and dental treatment to all comers. For thousands of men and women like Lowe who crowd the health fair every year, it represents the only medical care they ever receive. The dentists couldn’t help Lowe on the spot but got him in to see someone who could, and now he has a dental prosthesis that allows him to speak pretty well….

I live in West Virginia, and have relatives and have known folks who have had to deal with no insurance and chronic conditions my whole life. And not just years ago, either, I mean people today.  But it was Lowe’s stoic and humble pride in his newly found voice that spoke to the resiliant strength of the human spirit, and the amazing gift that you can give to others with a single act of kindness.  And his story stuck with me.

I don’t know what the answer is to the intertwined mess that is our health care system, our mental health care safety net (which is nearly nonexistent), our education and workforce issues, chronic generational poverty, the desperate need for primary care doctors in rural America, and every other issue touched by this mess.  But I know this:  it is morally wrong to simply say “well, he should have been born to richer parents.”  Woulda, coulda, shoulda doesn’t really cut it for a young boy who is mute because a simple medical assist is well beyond his ability to magically produce.  And anyone who cannot see how difficult and scarring that would be for a child…for a lifetime…has no heart.

Mr. ReddHedd and I live by our own little commitment:  we help our families as much as we can whenever they need it, we help the folks we know who need a hand, and we do what we can in our community and further out whenever we can do so.  We were talking about this last night, and how much of an impact it could have in the world if everyone were doing that all at once.  But they aren’t.  How does that change?  When?  Why hasn’t it changed already?

No child in America should be a throwaway child.  Not one. 

And no child should ever have to endure what James Lowe likely had to endure growing up in silence.  I keep thinking, “there but for the grace of God, this could have been me.”  I know some of the folks reading out there have similarly difficult stories, and I wish I had better answers.  I read about those parents campaing out in the field, waiting for medical care in a horse stall for their kids and I think, “if I were in the same situation, I’d do that for The Peanut’s benefit in a heartbeat.”  Thankfully, we aren’t in that situation.  But I could not let this subject come up again without saying that it is past time we talked seriously about all of this — because the way things are at the moment is not working.  Not even close.

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com