Deja vu, all over again

The Compass - - OPINION -

Heads in the sand

“The more things change, the more they re­main the same.” T hose are the words Barack Obama chose as the ti­tle for his pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion ac­cep­tance speech at the 2008 Demo­cratic Con­ven­tion.

How of­ten did my late fa­ther make the same state­ment with a sigh when­ever he got wind of some­thing that re­minded him of sim­i­lar events from ear­lier times! And, how of­ten do we ag­ing par­ents say it when we en­counter things that re­mind us of the past! It al­most be­comes a mantra.

Only those peo­ple who bury their heads in the sand like an ostrich, can avoid the re­al­ity of an on­go­ing cri­sis in the health care sys­tem in New­found­land and Labrador.

One need not look far for the tell­tale signs. The me­dia bom­bard us with re­ports of long-stand­ing prob­lems in the de­liv­ery of med­i­cal ser­vices. There are cramped work­ing spa­ces, an­ti­quated equip­ment and dif­fi­cult work­ing con­di­tions.

May we never for­get the key lessons that have emerged in­volv­ing prob­lems ex­pe­ri­enced with hor­mone re­cep­tor test­ing from 1997 to 2005! We ig­nore those lessons to our detri­ment. As Ge­orge San­tayana said, “Those who do not learn from his­tory are doomed to re­peat it.”

At the same time, politi­cians are some­times the ones who bury their heads in the sand by deny­ing there is any such cri­sis.

As re­cent as 2007, Premier Danny Wil­liams, while tour­ing the Cen­tral New­found­land Re­gional Health Cen­tre, Grand Falls-Wind­sor, in­sisted, “ Our health-care sys­tem is not in a cri­sis.” He re­moved his head from the sand only to con­tinue his tour.

A page from the past

Re­cently, I stum­bled upon an in­trigu­ing item from the past. It per­tains to New­found­land’s health-care sys­tem. The in­ter­est­ing thing is that it ap­peared in a lo­cal news­pa­per in 1919! It was pub­lished in The Guardian, the weekly news­pa­per edited by Charles E. Rus­sell at Bay Roberts.

The ar­ti­cle is en­ti­tled “Lo­cal Hospi­tal and Board of Health.” The sub­ti­tle is more re­veal­ing “Cit­i­zens Should De­mand Bet­ter Con­di­tions.” Shades of 2009! Af­ter read­ing the ar­ti­cle, I, like my fa­ther be­fore me, sighed and said, “The more things change, the more they re­main the same.” (I can­not over­look the fact that this dates me. Ag­ing is of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by a healthy (?) dose of cyn­i­cism.)

The cit­i­zens of 1919 were up­set about the lack of at­ten­tion be­ing paid by gov­ern­ment to the need to catch up from a med­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture per­spec­tive. More specif­i­cally, an in­fluenza and small­pox epi­demic forcibly re­minded every­one of the des­per­ate need for a lo­cal hospi­tal.

The District Board of Health was in­ad­e­quately com­prised of a sin­gle per­son, a judge, who lived ten miles dis­tant. To ex­pect him to su­per­vise and con­trol pub­lic health was un­rea­son­able.

The ed­i­to­ri­al­ist, in all like­li­hood the ed­i­tor, C.E. Rus­sell, sug­gested that a per­son of “or­di­nary in­tel­li­gence” could see the need of a lo­cal hospi­tal. What to do?

Out­port vs. Town­ies

Out­ports had “been de­nied this bless­ing for years.” Dep­u­ta­tions had re­peat­edly and un­suc­cess­fully re­quested this right from gov­ern­ment.

One had to look no far­ther than Har­bour Grace to wit­ness this de­mean­ing at­ti­tude. Gov­ern­ment stead­fastly ig­nored the ex­is­tence of a sub­stan­tial fund that had been started by cit­i­zens.

“What chance, there­fore,” Rus­sell asked rhetor­i­cally, “is there for cit­i­zens of any other out­port com­mu­nity to have their re­quest granted?”

The ed­i­tor re­garded as “un­fair and un­con­sti­tu­tional” that some tax­pay­ers could have hospi­tal fa­cil­i­ties sim­ply “be­cause they hap­pen to live in St. John’s.”

One senses sar­casm as Rus­sell refers to the “wings” which had been added to the Fever Hospi­tal. Gov­ern­ment could al­ways find money “to build any­thing in St. John’s, even a mu­seum, where the mum­mies are kept.” He did- n’t in­sert an ex­cla­ma­tion point into his ed­i­to­rial, but he could have.

Now, rec­om­mended The Guardian, con­sider the out­port pa­tients who trav­eled to St. John’s. They were of­ten com­pelled to wait weeks to be ad­mit­ted to the Gen­eral Hospi­tal. This was un­ac­cept­able in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury.

Politi­cians were well aware of th­ese un­favourable con­di­tions.

Granted, New­found­lan­ders had never at­tempted Bol­she­vik meth­ods to ob­tain their rights. Nor had they em­ployed “strong con­sti­tu­tional means.” In­stead, they “trusted their duly-elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives to see that they got a square deal.”

When the ill vis­ited the cap­i­tal city, all they got in re­turn, af­ter pay­ing their pro­por­tional share of taxes, were elec­tric street­lights, hospi­tal ac­com­mo­da­tion and fire pro­tec­tion.

An ob­vi­ous ques­tion was: What were the 30 out­port gov­ern­ment mem­bers do­ing? More to the point, what were the trio of Har­bour Grace mem­bers do­ing? “Are they in­ter­est­ing them­selves at all ex­cept in some triv­ial or­di­nary thing?”

Rus­sell ad­mit­ted that he had not “as much as seen our mem­ber for the past four or five years.” He asked, again rhetor­i­cally, “Is that good enough?” The only an­swer is that the res­i­dents de­served bet­ter.

Mean­while, the cit­i­zens of St. John’s were not to blame. The ed­i­to­ri­al­ist’s com­plaint was “that out­port tax­pay­ers and cit­i­zens do not get their just share of pub­lic im­prove­ments and fa­cil­i­ties.”

Rus­sell asked read­ers to re­call the many times when, be­cause of sickness and ac­ci­dent, “a cot­tage hospi­tal within easy reach would have been the means of sav­ing life.”

Who to blame?

Where to place blame for the “neg­li­gence to the out­port tax­payer?”

Rus­sell pin­pointed the out­port rep­re­sen­ta­tives. “For,” he sug­gested, “ had they de­manded bet­ter treat­ment for their con­stituents it would have been granted long ago.”

Next to be as­signed blame were the cit­i­zens. “Have we not been ap­a­thetic and in­dif­fer­ent to the cries of the masses who ap­peal to us for their rights?”

The Guardian had con­sis­tently, since 1909, es­poused “out­port rights, based on the prin­ci­ple of equal rights be­cause of equal tax­a­tion.”

Still, Rus­sell was “more strongly con­vinced than ever that a big wave of pub­lic in­ter­est must be shown in this mat­ter if any­thing is to be ac­com­plished.” Cit­i­zens were en­cour­aged to “elect men with ideals who will put their con­stituents’ in­ter­est first, first, first, not last, as they have been do­ing. Men who will ful­fill the prom­ises made on the eve of an elec­tion, not those who will sell them­selves to the var­i­ous in­flu- ences and cliques in St. John’s, to the detri­ment of­ten of their out­port con­stituents’ in­ter­ests.”

Touche!

Ninety years ago

There you have it. A cau­tion­ary tale from 90 years ago. Ob­vi­ously the faces have changed from 1919 to 2009. And, there is lit­tle if any con­nec­tion be­tween the de­tails of the chal­lenges be­ing faced by the health care sys­tem in the New­found­land of 1919 and our Prov­ince of 2009.

How­ever, the over­all pic­ture has re­mark­able sim­i­lar­i­ties.

We see in 1919 a fix­a­tion on a health care sys­tem in cri­sis, at least from an out­port stand­point. We see gov­ern­ment lord­ing it over its lowly out­port sub­jects. We are re­minded of a lack of in­ter­est by elected mem­bers to care for the needs of their con­stituents. We ob­serve a litany of un­ful­filled elec­tion prom­ises. We de­tect an un­re­spon­sive­ness to the needs in­her­ent in the health care sys­tem. There is the age-old out­port vs. townie men­tal­ity.

Yogi Berra is one of the most quoted sports fig­ures of all time. He is cred­ited with coin­ing some de­cep­tively sim­plis­tic ob­ser­va­tions. But he is also known for his flubs, one of which comes to mind af­ter read­ing the ar­ti­cle from The Guardian,“ This is like deja vu all over again.”

Bur­ton K. Janes, who lives in Bay Roberts, is ever so grate­ful for the Carbonear Gen­eral Hospi­tal, where he was rushed count­less times dur­ing an eight-year bout with kid­ney stones. He can be reached by email at bur­tonj@nfld.net

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