Saturday, January 5, 2019

Priorities in My Homeland

     Eighteen years ago this week, I was walking on the outskirts of a village in Western Wollega, Ethiopia.  My interpreter and I were near a middle-aged man's grass hut as he came over toward us. A few young children were playing nearby in the dirt. We started talking and learned that he and his wife had had five children but lost two of these when they were young, several years ago. I don't remember the details of the conversation but I do remember the sadness with which he told us that one of those children had died for want of an antibiotic that cost about $30 USD.  He turned away as he explained that he had no access to that kind of money.  I wasn't sure whether he was hiding tears or embarrassment. Either way, that memory had retreated into dormancy along with so many others from that visit - until today.

     This afternoon I scanned the news on my phone.  I swiped past the news of the partial government shutdown to a story told by a 47-year-old mother from Minneapolis named Nicole Smith-Holts.  She described how her 26-year-old  son had moved to his own apartment from her house shortly after he turned twenty-six.  He was an insulin-dependent diabetic and she knew he had lost her health insurance coverage having reached the cut-off age.  She did NOT know how expensive his insulin and supplies were without any insurance - about $1300 per month!  A few weeks after he moved out, he was found dead in his new home and an autopsy revealed the cause of death to be a diabetic coma.  This was attributed to insufficient use of the insulin - which he couldn't afford.  I have a thirty year-old son and can't imagine the level of sorrow and guilt Nicole will forever live with. 

     Reading her story today brought back my memories from Ethiopia, and on reflection I realize how similar our two countries can be - though there is obviously a difference of scale.  My own recollections from Ethiopia may or may not recede again into the hither regions of my mind.  Her emotional trauma never will. 

      I find it very disconcerting that even here in the wealthiest nation on earth, we still contribute to such ongoing sorrow with our government policies and the self-centered priorities we condone. According to the National Institutes of Health, in the year 2018 we spent less than $1 billion on researching the causes and treatment of diabetes -  The US military budget by contrast, spends $2 billion PER DAY.  According to Forbes, we spend more on "defense" than Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, India, Iran, Korea, UK and France  - combined. The importance of a strong national defense can't be overstated but to keep this  in perspective, diabetes typically kills more than six hundred people PER DAY!  Diabetes is an enemy of the people.

      The US government has a partial shutdown over a $5 billion wall. This continues to be all over the headlines.  And yet the lack of serious funding for a dreaded disease and daily killer goes unnoticed and will never make the headlines.  


Lab photo by Zoltan Tasi




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