What I learned from my first Mad as Hell Doctor week

I spent a week with the Mad as Hell Doctors, as a Mad as Hell Doctor, doing town halls about health care and about single payer, HR676. We went from Seattle to Denver, with 1-3 town halls a day, and then I flew home.

They are still on the road and I rejoin them tomorrow, for the last week. We will end in Washington DC, with a caravan and a white ribbon protest at Lafayette Park on September 30, 2009 and October 1, 2009.

I have been home for just under two weeks and am STILL trying to sort out what I learned and feel. I suspect it will take months.

1. I am not alone.

2. I am not used to applause.

3. People are brave and noble.

First, I learned that there are other doctors who truly put patients first and will go on the road for 3.5 weeks to prove it.

Dr. Mike Huntington, a radiation oncologist. He says that in the last 10 years of practice, the treatment for prostate cancer tripled from $17,000 to $54,000 because of fancier technology and computers. The result? Minimal to no better results for the patient. It horrified him. He quit. He is on the road.

Dr. Joeseph Eusterman, an internist. He did internal medicine, that is, adult primary care, for 25 years. He was in the military. He then switched to Workman’s Comp. He was horrified to find how deeply frightened Americans are of their supervisors, of being injured, of speaking up when they are injured and how dysfunctional the system is. He is retired, over 80 years old, and is driving Winnie, the Winnebago, across the country. I pray that I am that strong and determined to do right in my 80s.

Dr. Paul Hochfeld, an emergency room doctor. About four years ago, he got furious at the system and started reading and searching for the reasons our health care cost so much. He started with that question. The writing that made sense led him to call the experts and he asked for interviews. He made a movie, titled Health, Money and Fear. He is furious that our political system is run by money, corporations and that Congress seems to have forgotten the people, with all the corporate money that is thrown at them. He is fighting for reform.

Dr. Robert Seward, an internist. He is horrified that 60% of bankruptcies in this nation are because of health care bills. Think of all the press on people losing their houses: the fact is, they are losing their houses in large part because of health insurance companies and the failure of health care in our nation. He spoke with a Canadian man on the trip, who said, “Why don’t you Americans take care of your people?” That is still echoing among us. Dr. Seward says, “I was ashamed. We don’t. We Americans don’t take care of our people and we could and I am ashamed.”

Dr. Margaret Flowers, a pediatrician. She is working for Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) as a Congressional Fellow. She wants single payer on the table in the Congressional discussion. She was arrested for refusing to leave Senator Max Baucus’s office in May 2009. She is fighting for single payer.

I had never met these people before I joined them in Seattle. I was nervous about it: a road trip with strangers and talk into a microphone? But it was like coming home and it felt right.

Second, I learned that I am armored against criticism: it’s praise that I don’t know how to handle. The day before the trip, I spoke to one of the doctors on the phone and he said that I wouldn’t be on the panel of Mad as Hell Doctors in Seattle. I would watch the first town hall and then be on the panel at the next, in Spokane.

At the last moment, they said, oh, no, you are on the panel. I hopped up and left my purse at my seat. I remembered it 45 minutes later and thankfully was able to retrieve it. It would have been difficult to fly home from Denver otherwise.

Each doctor had 1-3 minutes to say why they were Mad as Hell. I winged it, and that was not a problem, because I AM Mad as Hell at our present medical system, the drug companies, the insurance companies and could go on for hours. Other doctors at my hospital would no doubt roll their eyes and say that I DO go on for hours.

I am used to being ignored, marginalized, told “we’re concerned about you”, told “we want you to succeed,” pressured and fired. There were secret meetings about the call schedule that I was not told about because they didn’t want me there. I’m stubborn, used to it, speak up anyhow and armored.

But in Seattle, I said a 2-3 minute piece of what I’ve been arguing about for 20 years.

People clapped. Applause.

I sat down. I wanted to crawl under the table and hide behind the white sheet covering the front. I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know how I felt. I concentrated on what the other doctors were saying, one after another, instead.

The other doctors thanked me, glad to have a woman doctor, glad to have a family practitioner and a rural one to boot. At each town hall, we talked to anyone who came, before and afterwards. The program itself was about 90 minutes but with the time talking to people before and afterwards, it was more like three hours. We did one to three programs a day and drove in between. It was physically and mentally tough. Residency trains us to put away emotions until later, so that’s what I did. The doctors are all tough and no one wanted to complain too much with our 80 plus year old gung ho and tough as a boot.

After I got home, the strongest feeling was wanting to weep. My Death Panel writeup had been in the local paper and four people thanked me in three days. I didn’t know what to do with that either. Under all the armor is someone who wants to be appreciated and loved. I’m used to criticism but praise went through the armor straight to my heart and to a part of me that I didn’t know was there. That person appears to be rather young and undeveloped. She is going to take some bringing up. Meanwhile, I asked for help in the form of my improvisation teacher. How, I asked, do I handle applause? He gave me clear specific instructions. I can do what he said, even if the emotional stuff inside is hiding under the table. Doctor training kicks in easily.

Third, I learned how people from Seattle to Denver, across the country, will stand up if given the opportunity. Part of the program was the Mad as Hell Minute. ANYONE, whether they agreed with us or not, could come forward, say their name and be on camera. They said why they were Mad as Hell about health care. They did not have to agree with us, with single payer, they could argue the opposition. But everyone was supposed to listen. Adam Klugman, our creative director, spoke of how it was an exercise in speaking up to our friends and community members and an exercise in listening to each person. And anyone who spoke, might show up on Youtube.

At some programs, one person would get up to speak. People were shy. Then a second would get up, then two more and then we would have a line. Not everyone spoke, but most of the people at the indoor town halls spoke. They told heartbreaking stories of family members, friends, their own loss of a job with a loss of insurance and people who weren’t being treated, or died because they could not afford treatment.

They were brave and honest and that made me want to weep too. And it was inspiring, to see people speak up. I hope that Congress is watching the Mad as Hell Minutes. These are the people they should be listening to and responding to, not the 1-2 million dollars in lobbying paid for by the insurance companies DAILY.

I have been cursing up a storm in my diary. I’m going back on the road, leave tonight for Seattle, take my daughter to her grandmother, and rejoin the Mad as Hell Doctors for the last 6 days. I feel blessed. The cursing is to balance me out; there’s no room for the grumpy, irritable, argumentative part of me on the trip so it is having a field day before I go. Back to hear people’s stories and applaud. And I have faith that change is in the air.