Demystifying Medicine One Week at a Time

An Uncomfortable Question

Like most people, I’ve found the news and images coming from Haiti in the aftermath of the January ’10 earthquake appalling and upsetting.

The sheer amount of devastation and orders of magnitude loss of life make the story compelling by itself.  Coupled on top of Haiti’s ignominious history, the situation touches us for its Job-like quality:  “How much misery can one people withstand?”

I’ve been pleased at the outpouring of support for Haiti.  Part of me feared a sense of ‘crisis fatigue’ after the pacific tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, in addition to the fact that our economy is so weak.  And, let’s be honest–Haitians are very much ‘others’–darker skinned, with a French-sounding language that likely doesn’t play well in more conservative/isolationist quarters of the U.S.

A recent telethon raised more than sixty million dollars.  The advent of the ‘text donation’ has let literally millions of people contribute to the relief effort by the Red Cross in ten dollar allotments.

This single advance has changed fundraising forever.  I shudder to think how politicians will use this feature to raise money for campaigns.  [I’m only glad this tactic wasn’t widely available in the 2008 Presidential campaign!]

On top of the monetary outpouring, many of our nation’s medical centers have sent teams of volunteers to help Haiti recover from the earthquake, including one that I know fairly well.

Volunteering to aid in disaster relief is noble work; given all the media attention, it’s downright sexy.

But I’m left with the sinking feeling that after the TV lights dim, there will be a LOT more to do in Haiti.  For a long time to come.  After all, our attention for one news story can only last so long.

Even more unsettling for me is this fundamental question:  Why are we so good at culling resources for tragedies, and so lacking in generosity and imagination with the entrenched problems close by?

There are obvious answers:

1.  “If it bleeds, it leads.”  This news producers’ lament/mantra says something about us at our core.  We’re both grotesquely fascinated by carnage and we’re empathic creatures with a genuine desire to help.

2. Charity–whether religious, spiritual, ingrained or acquired, most of us are taught some sort of values that tell us to help those less fortunate than us.

3. Humanitarian disasters bespeak urgency.  Systemic problems require real change, not just supply delivery.

4. The Powell Doctrine (as in Colin): Natural disaster relief efforts are time-limited engagements with clear goals agreed upon by broad consensus.  The same cannot be said about say, urban poverty in the U.S.

I can’t help but wonder what if?

What if for just one day/week/month/year we felt the same way about the lack of access to care, the disparities in outcomes, the uncontainable costs of our health care?  What if we could bring in supply trucks full of rations and blankets and tents to those at the margins of our society and provide succor in some lasting way?

A medical center that supports its employees in their heroic work–providing infrastructure (supplies, support) and (gasp!) full salary and benefits–certainly makes a win-win out of tragedy.  The medical center gets good PR while doing real good.

Anyway, at a minimum, it’s a challenging thought exercise:  Given the awareness, the attention, and the resources, how could we take our collective generosity and apply it to our most intractable problems?

Send in your ideas!


  1. I love the idea of devoting a week to emergency poverty relief right here in the U.S. With the right P.R. the time-constricted nature of it might broaden support and get so many of us to contribute rather than helplessly shrug. Concrete goals in specific geographic locations across the country might be key as would taking an AJWS-like approach: set communities up for ongoing success and independence (e.g. by creating those hospitals you describe).

  2. What a brilliant idea- if only!

  3. John:

    When it comes to making charitible contributions self-identified conservatives give substantially more time and money than liberals. Conservatives do not look at the dark skin of Haitians as perhaps others feel necessary to point out. They only see people in need and respond.

  4. do i sense a south side text-a-thon in our future?

    it’s so much easier to give 10 bucks over a text than go out and volunteer somewhere. sometimes i think people don’t help at all because helping one time doesn’t seem like enough – as if the pressure of needing to make a commitment drives them away.

  5. Very thoughtful. Should be tried. Wrong that conservatives are more charitable. Burke was a real conservative. American conservatives tend to be selfish, self-centered, greedy and power-crazed.

  6. Readable and interesting blog. Major disasters are a one-time thing. People help in one way or another for a while and move on. Domestic chronic problems (poverty, health care issues, corporate greed,, etc.) have been with us for decades, require political solutions, and strong leadership nationally. There are often no unanimous opinions on how to solve, tackle, or ameliorate the problems. And recently some of us thought the time was right to reach more towards rational solutions on a broad basis rather than piecemeal and guess what! It seems to take decades in America to accomplish progressive goals, i.e progressive ideas advocated in Wisconsin in the 19th century were not achieved for 50 or more years. Since we can’t wait that long now we’ll have to recommit and not abandon our efforts.

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