what is wrong with people.jpgThis is one of those whiplash days where my normally sunny self looks at the world and says – what is wrong with people?

I constantly hear things like…

  • I shouldn’t have to pay for someone else’s healthcare.
  • I shouldn’t have to pay for someone else’s kid to go to school.
  • “Those people” are taking my hard-earned dollars.

And here are the things many of these same people wouldn’t dare say, but are saying with their votes.

  • I don’t care about that kid who can’t afford lunch and only eats thanks to a government-funded school program that’s getting cancelled.
  • I don’t care if those teachers get laid off because I don’t want to raise taxes.
  • I don’t care that some stranger with cancer, who is too young for Medicaid, but can’t work, will die without healthcare.

Are the people who say and secretly think these things just bad people? I certainly hope that’s not the case. I do think these comments and actions (or better, inactions) show that we’re seriously lacking in empathy in this world.

Let’s look at an example – healthcare

healthcare.jpgIn the US right now, the healthcare debate is everywhere. The latest? Congress just pushed through a bill that the majority of Americans and nearly all legitimate medical groups, including the AMA, oppose. (This is yet another reminder that majority and consensus are no longer part of the US governmental process).

Although no one really knows, because Congressional leaders wouldn’t let the bi-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) assess the revised bill, it was estimated that the original incarnation of this bill would cause 24 million people to lose their healthcare insurance.

But, the first bill also was projected to reduce the federal deficit $300 billion over the next decade. That’s a big number. Sounds great. Unless you’re the 24 million people who will lose their healthcare.

When money is more important than people’s health and well-being, we are no longer living the words “We the People.” We’ve lost our “we.” Now it’s only “I” or “I and people like me.”

But how can we help improve our empathy?

I’m sure there are many answers. I also know that books are one of them. Studies show that people who read, and particularly those who read a variety of books, are more empathetic and more able to relate to and understand others.

In the hopes that there are still some people interested in trying to be good to one another, here are some books if you’d like to up your empathy game in understanding what it will mean to many people to lose their health insurance.

The Death Gap

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Healthcare, like everything in this world is complicated. Any half intelligent, mildly sane person knew that ages ago.  But, the problems with healthcare (or, better “sickcare”) go beyond just health, they include psychological factors, socioeconomic factors and, unfortunately, lots and lots of politics and money.

The Death Gap provides insight twofold into this problem. It’s written by a physician whose perspective on the inequalities of the healthcare system and how that effects physicians and patients can help anyone better understand and relate to the issues and complexities facing many people, who may not be like them.

About the book: We hear plenty about the widening income gap between the rich and the poor in America and about the expanding distance separating the haves and the have-nots. But when detailing the many things that the poor have not, we often overlook the most critical—their health. The poor die sooner. Blacks die sooner. And poor urban blacks die sooner than almost all other Americans. In nearly four decades as a doctor at hospitals serving some of the poorest communities in Chicago, David Ansell has witnessed firsthand the lives behind these devastating statistics. In The Death Gap, he gives a grim survey of these realities, drawn from observations and stories of his patients.

“In nearly four decades as a doctor at hospitals serving some of the poorest communities in Chicago, David Ansell has witnessed firsthand the lives behind these devastating statistics.”

Sick: The Untold Story of America’s Health Care Crisis—and the People Who Pay the Price


Although this book is not very recent (published in 2007), it’s sad to see how little the US healthcare system has obviously changed in the last 10 years, despite genuinely good-hearted efforts to fix it. (In case it’s somehow unclear where I stand on this issue, I don’t think any efforts since November 2016 could be characterized as “good-hearted”.)

Despite being 10 years old, the book still offers a personal look at the impact of having a broken healthcare system on actual people and reiterates the need to stop playing partisan politics and only caring about money. (Although when you elect a “businessman” / reality TV personality who covers his house in gold, seriously – what did you expect?)

About the book: America’s health care system is unraveling, with millions of hard-working people unable to pay for prescription drugs and regular checkups, let alone hospital visits. Jonathan Cohn traveled across the United States—the only country in the developed world that does not guarantee its citizens access to medical care—to investigate why this crisis is happening and to see firsthand its impact on ordinary Americans. Passionate, powerful, illuminating, and often devastating, Sick chronicles the decline of America’s health care system, and lays bare the consequences any one of us could suffer if we don’t replace it.

“Jonathan Cohn traveled across the United States—the only country in the developed world that does not guarantee its citizens access to medical care—to investigate why this crisis is happening and to see firsthand its impact on ordinary Americans.”

The Brand New Catastrophe

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When people think of healthcare, they often talk about “risk pools.” The idea is that the young people will balance out the risk of the older. But these types of generalizations are exactly what is killing our empathy. People aren’t risk pools and anyone can get sick, even the seemingly young and healthy.

About the book: Raucous family memoir meets medical adventure in this heartfelt, hilarious book exploring the public and private theaters of illness. After a tumor bursts in Mike Scalise’s brain, leaving him with a hole in the head and malfunctioning hormones, he must navigate a new, alien world of illness maintenance. His mother, who has a chronic heart condition and a flair for drama, becomes a complicated model as she competes with him for the status of “best sick person.” The Brand New Catastrophe is a moving, funny exploration of how we define ourselves by the stories we choose to tell.

“At one point, he reveals one of the greatest catastrophes that can befall young people: getting sick and not having health insurance.”


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Since I work in the healthcare field, I’m familiar with the good Henrietta Lack’s cells have done for this world. Until not that long ago, I was also vaguely familiar with the story behind it. However I’m also disappointed in myself that it took me this long to learn the true nature of how we have benefited thanks to taking advantage of this woman.

This story is now reaching an even wider audience thanks to a new HBO movie of the same name. It fits well into the theme of empathy in that it forces to look at our history of ignoring the treatment of people in our own healthcare system and taking advantage of people for professional and monetary gain. It’s another case of not seeing the individual. If we don’t grow our empathy, we’ll just continue to repeat these mistakes.

About the book: Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance. This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew.

“Sometimes, the desire to discover a new treatment overwhelms a doctor’s awareness that he or she is treating a person. You know, a person? With rights and feelings?”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Empathy Exams: Essays

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It seems fitting to end with this collection of essays about empathy in relation to health and illness.

About the book: Beginning with her experience as a medical actor who was paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about each other? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other? By confronting pain―real and imagined, her own and others’―Jamison uncovers a personal and cultural urgency to feel. She draws from her own experiences of illness and bodily injury to engage in an exploration that extends far beyond her life, spanning wide-ranging territory―from poverty tourism to phantom diseases, street violence to reality television, illness to incarceration―in its search for a kind of sight shaped by humility and grace.

“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us – a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain – it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.”  –The Empathy Exams: Essays