- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 19, 2002

Just the other day, I unwittingly made a woman cry. It was not my intention. I only meant to be helpful to someone who was clearly in need.
She was a Rubenesque white woman apparently in her late 60s who was struggling to push her wheelchair backward up an incline so she could go to a physical therapy session at the nursing home facility where my mother now lives. Her senior-citizen apartment building is about 50 yards away.
"Would you like a ride today?" I asked. In a timid tone that signaled that she didn't want to be a bother, she said, "Well, I've got a little weight on me, it might be hard."
"Not a problem," I replied. "So do I, so we should be fine."
At that simpatico sentiment, we chuckled. But I hadn't pushed her 2 feet when I noticed she was holding her head and whimpering.
Horrified, I thought I'd somehow done something to harm her. To my surprise, she thanked me profusely. "I've gotten so used to doing things for myself that I don't expect anybody to help me any more," she said.
Can you imagine such a sense of desolation?
For the past six months much of my time has been spent at the nursing home caring for or advocating for the care of my mother, who just weathered a serious bout of pneumonia. If it weren't for my Aunt Yvonne's assistance that figuratively pushes me uphill, I don't know what I'd do.
Believe me, you don't want to go there. To a nursing home or "rehabilitation facility," that is.
Think you're too young to worry? "Old" is a relative term. It's hard to turn a blind eye to the many residents I've seen who have suffered debilitating strokes, heart attacks, cancer and lung disease who are clearly my contemporaries or even younger. Sickness is the great equalizer.
But these often painful and pathetic examples I've witnessed accompanying my mother to doctors, emergency rooms and the nursing home have given me a great lifesaving gift. They have given me a stark and serious wake-up call.
I now have deeper respect for the wondrous machine we call our bodies, and I have come to appreciate the need for each of us to take charge of our own health care before it's too late. No one else will.
The population is aging, and health care costs are skyrocketing, yet politicians continue to cut Medicare and Medicaid funding. Universal health care for the citizens of the richest nation in the world died a disastrous political death, and no legislator dares revive this critical issue that could change the quality of most Americans lives.
Recent studies and bone-chilling congressional hearings about nursing home care have demonstrated the dire need for better resources and stricter oversight of these facilities.
Yet what we need in this country is better health care for everyone, from the cradle to the grave.
Until more politicians are faced with having to care so intimately for a disabled loved one, we must learn to fend for ourselves. Usually the first thing slashed in cash-strapped state budgets is funding for health care for the poor.
So I suggest that we all make a strong commitment to take better care of ourselves. As hard as it is, we must pay closer attention to our diets and exercise.
Who knew in youth that the day would come when your deepest desire would be to have a cool drink of water or a dry diaper? Who knew that a stranger volunteering to push your wheelchair could bring you to tears?
Just pray that there will be someone around who loves you and has the energy to navigate the medical maze to get you an aspirin. Get in the habit of taking someone to the doctor with you, if you can, so they can listen and ask questions that you are too sick or too scared to ask.
Politicians are of little help when it comes to health care. Take Maryland, for example, where there is a smoldering debate about raising the tax on a pack of cigarettes. It could generate $100 million to $200 million. The increase is supposedly designed to stop smoking, although it appears more likely that this "sin tax" is a smoke screen to raise revenue revenue that rarely reaches the people who need it most.
Maryland health care advocates say the tax will be so prohibitive that it alone will stop some folks from lighting up. These people must not be aware that in certain poor neighborhoods, you can buy a single cigarette at the corner liquor store.
Besides, this cigarette tax measure fails to take into account a study released last week that indicates health care costs associated with obesity outweigh those associated with smoking and drinking.
Roland Sturm, an economist for Rand Corp., said obese patients spend 36 percent more on medical services and 77 percent more on prescription drugs than a person of average weight. A smoker spends 21 percent more on care and 28 percent more on drugs, according to the study published in Health Affairs this month.
But most insurers do not reimburse patients for weight-loss programs but rather for illnesses related to their obesity, such as hypertension and diabetes.
Are Maryland legislators, under the guise of health care concerns, now going to institute a snack tax to counter obesity? Or might they consider a levy on Key lime pie to generate more money for the state's dwindling coffers? How would they allocate those funds?
How do lawmakers justify raising revenue based on a health care issue such as smoking but fail to earmark those funds to offset rising health care expenditures such as Medicare?
Nursing homes are having a hard enough time providing adequate care with the pittance they receive now. And no middle-class or poor individual can afford private, long-term care for very long. Even the rich may have trouble.
As citizens of the richest country in the world, we must refocus our priorities to get better care for and take better care of our health.

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