06 September 2007

Sen. Johnson gets it now — but do the rest?

By Donna Smith

DENVER – It was a moving scene. Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota returned to the U.S. Senate today, nine months after suffering a brain hemorrhage that nearly took his life.

I vividly remember that day. I was working at a contract position here in Denver when someone came out of our break room and said some Senator from South Dakota had a stroke or something. My stomach flipped. We had just moved from South Dakota weeks before, and Tim Johnson was one of my U.S. Senators.

When I arrived home that day to my daughter’s home where we were living in a small storage room, a hand-written note was waiting in her mailbox for me. It was to me from Sen. Tim Johnson. The irony of receiving that note on that day was spooky for me. The note is on his U.S. Senate note paper, and he thanked me for my efforts to be a fair reporter in western South Dakota where most media leans heavily and easily to the far right. I still have that note and will treasure it always. It wasn’t easy to report on any Democrat in western South Dakota, and it was kind of him to acknowledge that fact.

But now it is months later. I have been in Michael Moore’s SiCKO and to Cuba for health care, and Sen. Johnson and his family have been through hell and back with his brain injury. Both of our families have much yet to endure.

I listened to his statement today and marveled at his courage. How many of us would step to that microphone and do what he did and what he had obviously fought to do with every fiber of his body. Every American should take great comfort that among all the terrible falsehoods and shams we watch unfold from Washington, these few moments were very human and very American – in the best senses of both.

In part, Sen. Johnson said, “But I return to work today to this great body with a renewed spirit and a sharper focus. I better appreciate today what individuals and families go through when they face crippling hardship – whether that hardship be the consequence of catastrophic health issues, economic hardship, or lack of an opportunity to reach one’s full potential in life.

“I believe I have been given a second chance at life. I vow to take that second chance and work harder than ever to be the best I can be for my state and for my nation; to be a voice for those individuals and families who too often are ignored or forgotten; and to fight to live up to the ideals that have made this nation great. That is my focus and that is my commitment to my constituents back home in South Dakota, to the people of this great nation, and to my colleagues here in Washington.” When he finished his statement, his colleagues stood and honored him with applause, as well they should.

Then our Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, spoke. In his moving tribute to his friend and fellow Democrat, Sen. Reid shared a truth that might have been lost by some but that seared at my heart and soul like a hot knife.

In praising Sen. Johnson’s doctors and acknowledging the serendipity that allowed his medical crisis to occur when and where it did, Sen. Reid inadvertently highlighted some of the very issues the rest of us out in America face today.

Reid said that if the hemorrhage had occurred one day later, Johnson might have been on an airplane bound for South Dakota. OK, that would be bad. It would have taken precious time for a plane to land and for care to reach my Senator. He might have died or had a very bad outcome indeed.

But then Reid added that if the crisis had occurred two days later, Johnson might have been on an Indian reservation. Oooh, now that’s not good. Everybody knows that having a medical emergency on one of the nation’s Indian reservations would necessarily mean pretty lousy chances for high quality trauma care or even minimal stabilization of a medical emergency.

So, my good Senators, Sen. Johnson was blessed to have his emergency in Washington, near an awesome medical facility with doctors who were top-notch and able to work with the best of the best to save his life and to save his brain so we could applaud him today.

Most Americans are not so lucky. We don’t have the insurance benefits and access to quality care that saved Sen. Johnson’s life and brain. And the kicker still is that we – the American taxpayer and voters – give our Congressional members better benefits at better prices and therefore a better chance for life than we even demand for ourselves.

I would like to hold Sen. Johnson to the words he spoke today and challenge him to work now on bringing the health care crisis in this nation forward once again in the Senate. He has a unique perspective and a unique opportunity -- Perhaps a God-given opportunity to argue that he values the health and lives of his constituents and of everyday Americans just as much as he does his own. In my heart, I know he does. Now I just need to find out if he has the courage to stand up and say it in spite of the re-election race decision looming in the not-too-distant future.

In 2004, another U.S. Senator from South Dakota offered a resolution in the Senate saying that every American should have access to health care benefits like those given to every member of Congress at a fair price. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle offered that resolution but was later defeated by the young Republican, John Thune, who introduced Sen. Johnson today as he returned to the Senate. Thune does not believe every American deserves the same health benefits he does.

I would like to challenge Sen. Johnson to go back to that resolution and read it again. Give it your own touches and please reintroduce it again. Let the courage and compassion you now know even more intimately exists in America guide you to bring this discussion back into the Senate before another year and another election cycle – and the deaths of 18,000 more Americans – passes. This nation needs health care reform now, please help us Sen. Johnson.

No comments: