Health, Wealth and History

One of the most poignant moments in the most recent presidential campaign came during the second debate in discussing health care. The town hall format debate was full of the usual equivocating and double-speak of presidential debates and the campaign in general, and both candidates offered vague, stump-speech responses to an audience member’s question about whether health care should be “treated as a commodity.” But, when pressed by Tom Brokaw on whether health care is a “privilege, right or responsibility,” each candidate clarified his perspective. John McCain declared “I think it’s a responsibility” while Barack Obama asserted “I think it should be a right for every American.” For a populace mired in the midst of an economic meltdown looking for assurances that the new President would work to secure access to such a basic need as health care, Obama’s direct response seemed to connect better and propel him to victory in the election.

Access to health care to address all sorts of diseases is indeed a fundamental concern for millions of Americans and the source of household stress. What is often lost given current debates is the astounding progress made by modern medicine in addressing many – though not all – formerly incurable diseases. My father (currently retired after a long career in academic medicine and research) recently published a book highlighting these advances, as well as remaining challenges, in medicine.

Whom the Gods Love Die Young explores the history of disease and medical care through the lives and deaths of ten famous people who passed away before the age of 40. Most of the people are from the arts (Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Charlotte Brönte, Stephen Crane, Rudolph Valentino, Jean Harlow, and Mario Lanza), but also from politics (Princess Charlotte and Eva Perón) and sports (Lou Gehrig). It is part biography, part medicine 101, and part medical prognosis. Though I am not unbiased in this case, I found the book engaging and well-written (not surprising given that the author corrected my grammar countless times at the dinner table as I was growing up).

In nearly all of the cases in the book, if these persons were alive today they very likely would live much longer due to advances in modern medicine (the possible exception being Lou Gehrig, as ALS continues to confound researchers). That is, of course, if they lived in the developed world or had financial resources to ensure access to the best health care. As highlighted in the book, deaths from diseases such as malaria (Lord Byron), tuberculosis (Stephen Crane), cervical cancer (Eva Perón) and death in childbirth (Princess Charlotte) have plummeted in the U.S. and much of the world but continue to plague poor countries and people.

For example, maternal mortality declined more than 99% over the last half of the 20th century, but rates in developing countries can be more than 150 times that in the U.S. Cervical cancer rates in the U.S. fell by two-thirds over the last 50 years due to improved screening (and hopefully helped recently by a promising new vaccine); but these interventions are much less readily available to the poor in our world. The advances of modern medicine have undoubtedly saved lives and improved the quality of life overall, but if health care is a right, we should strive to made this progress more universal.

Whom the Gods Love Die Young: A Modern Medical Perspective on Illnesses that Caused the Early Death of Famous People. Roy Macbeth Pitkin, M.D. RoseDog Books, Pittsburgh PA. 2008. 183 pp. ISBN 978-1-4349-9199-7

Published by Bill

Social justice advocate and collaborative leader

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