What ever happened to "Reach for the Stars?"

Many living today know that it was Christa McAullife who made the phrase an every day aspiration. One could say the teacher astronaut being lost in the reach should bring fear to the phrase. But it was not the aspiration but weather, mundane statistical thinking and perhaps some hubris that led to her loss. In the imperfections of self and world it is a reach, not always a grasp.

There is always something more ahead. To cease the reaching is to lose what can be.

Had there not been some several years of the space program reaching, at great taxpayer expense, it is not likely the explosion in innovation in microcomputing, communications and imaging would have happened. Imagine our world of the wired black Bell telephone, the IBM Selectric and Speed Graphic still the top of their lines. Did we get our money’s worth? I think so. More important we fueled our hope and confidence.

My question is evoked by the recommendations by the Obama administration’s prize committee on effectiveness of medical practices. The report is really only the nail in the coffin of my hope for a move back to humane and universally available care for our sick and would be sick. Surely the insurance, pharmaceutical-appliance and educational industries have extracted all the wealth there is to be had?

Care of the lame and the suffering is a social and cultural concern. Surely the goal is to care, not to sustain highly profitable industries? To address how it shall be given is not a zero sum game of manipulated statistics. They do not reach.

It has set me to reflecting on the real science as I have lived it and know it can be. And I can see many parallels to the space program in medicine. The great physician Galen took much from Aristotle and much from Hippocrates as well as his own work. He was so successful in organizing the knowledge of how the body works that it was decided that he had published all that there was to know. And for a thousand years the science of medicine lay fallow. Only in the Renaissance did it begin to be advanced by those such as Paracelsus, Vesalius and Harvey who believed there was more knowledge to reach for. It is a tradition that has endured in medical science until recently. But the obsession with profit is taking its toll.

My little piece of it began in the early 1960s. And I have stories to tell. There are many but I suppose Halstead was one of the first to challenge the notion that many cancers do not begin systemically. Reaching for a cure for breast cancer in the second half of the 19th century he performed the first radical mastectomy. Others were beginning to do the same for other cancers.

The situation with childhood cancer was in the fifties and early sixties similar to adult cancer in the latter half of the 19th century. I was honored to be among relatively small group of pediatricians who chose to join the surgeons and radiologists in the reach for cures of children. There were remarkable achievements within ten short years. Much of what we developed then is still being applied to all age groups. This includes finding ways to treat breast cancer without resorting to radical mastectomy.

Countless vibrant lives have since survived to participate in their own joy and the welfare of their nation and the earth.

Had Halstead used the reasoning currently being applied, that of cruel perversions of science and statistics called economics, to care for our ill, he would have never put a scalpel to a breast. Had those who believed children with cancer must die prevailed, Edward Kennedy, Jr. would not be among us. You fill in the multitude of faces and facts. I know of few of us that don’t have a beloved to add.

When you don’t reach for the stars you opt for dark ages and entropy.

Lorraine Watkins

Lorraine Watkins