Change We Can Be Livin’ In: Health Democracy in America

During the recent pre-inaugural concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Tom Hanks read the last words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in a way I hadn’t heard them before. Usually when I think of those words I stress the first word of every phrase… “Government…of the people, by the people, and for the people…shall not perish from this earth”. Tom Hanks read it stressing the last word of every phrase…so it was “…of the people, by the people and for the people.”

I loved hearing it this way. It emphasized everything Obama had been saying about each person taking more personal responsibility for our selves and our communities, even in hard times. More importantly, it was about people claiming their power and not being childishly passive in their expectations about government and government services. Hanks’ reading emphasized our nation’s confusion about what democracy asks for as well as offers. It emphasized for me our utter confusion about “the people”…and how policies that give power, wealth, health and happiness to “the people” are not inherently “radical”, “left-wing” or subversive…but are in fact what America is supposed to be all about.

This thinking naturally ends up with me asking each of us to sign on..right now.. to taking more responsibility for the heath and healthy care of the people, by the people and for the people… not health care directed and effected from the centers of big pharmaceutical companies and insurance providers… but the day to day things we can all do to assure greater health for ourselves and our families: healthy care. The harder the times, the greater our need to come to terms with these issues. It seems that the more I hear about banks in trouble the less I’m hearing about everyday, ever more stressed people and their health related needs. The contradictions and confusion here are stark and more scandalous every day.

This moment of renewed national awareness is a perfect time for each of us to assess how we can actually commit day to day to enhancing our national security and health, by enhancing our personal habits and health practices. It’s also a time to assert our fundamental expectation that we should be taken care of when we need care.

Along with our assertion of “health care” as a right, we must deeply consider what it means that as mature citizens, we also have a fundamental responsibility to do our part to create a functioning society by doing everything we can to get and stay healthy apart from the disease care system. This includes coming to terms with what conveniences and unnecessary multiple possessions we would be willing to give up to live in a less toxic world that isn’t damaging the nervous and endocrine systems of our children in epidemic numbers even before they are born. It would be easier for people to make health promoting personal decisions if a national health policy made them feel secure that they would be taken care of in times of dis-ease and need. We need both preventative policy and life style… and universal access to effective disease care.

I have been privileged to practice traditional Oriental Medicine for many years. This is a practice rooted in prevention and an integrated approach to health. It is an elegant and effective form of medicine. Yet its very roots and basic philosophy are overwhelmed and challenged by the sheer toxicity, high stress and lack of balance in much of modern life. Our commitment to health democracy can include a commitment to reversing these trends through our personal decisions..

Chinese Medicine has always been about the whole person, and everything about the person has always been meaningful in the diagnosis. The seasons you like and dislike, the time of day you have good energy and energy slumps, the sound of your voice, the color tone of the skin around your eyes, your emotional state, your odor, the quality of the pulses on your wrist, the color, coating, cracks and other properties of your tongue … all of these and many more are important in the diagnosis.

In Chinese Medicine we integrate the traditional aspects of healing: “Way of life” or life style medicine is patient education. This especially concerns contemplative practices, exercise and dietary practices which have always been indistinguishable from “medicine” in all natural healing traditions. Then there is herbal medicine gleaned from the plants growing around the region of both patient and doctor. Herbal medicine has probably treated more human beings than any other system of medicine on earth. Then there is the acupuncture, the acupressure, and the moxabustion (burning of mugwort on acupuncture points); all or most of these are involved with every patient. This is the ancient and original integrative medicine.

There is no use talking about health care reform unless we are willing to acknowledge that the system we currently have is dis-integrated and cannot be usefully reformed. It must be transformed into a system and a way of life, which truly encourages, sustains and promotes health, respects traditional healing practices and prevents dis-ease.

Integrative medicine can only be about promoting lives of integrity which allow access to health and “healthy care” along with access to disease care. Though I myself healed from locally metastasized breast cancer 14 years ago without resorting to conventional oncology, I question whether I would have been able to do so if I weren’t in the position of practicing what I preach and living in a more balanced, healing and healthy way. Maybe those practices helped me to overcome the overpowering effects of childhood exposure to nuclear fall-out , DDT and other cancer promoting forces outside my personal control. Living healthfully should be considered an even more basic right than the basic right to have access to the current system of disease care.

Getting insurance available for those who can’t afford it, though a noble and important goal, will not necessarily do much to improve health. We can all sign on to health democracy by becoming empowered participants in our own health and believing that we can heal and be healthy, still recognizing that some sickness and disease will always be a part of life.

How would I prioritize developing health democracy?

*Food democracy with priority to local, fresh, whole, clean-grown foods available to all. Packaged, refined convenience foods cannot provide the nutrition needed to maintain health.

*Adequate parental leave for growing families to give nurture to newborns and young children. Priority given to human milk being available to all babies for at least the minimum of 6 months currently recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. (The World Health Organization suggests 2 years!)

*Adequate vacation, personal and flexible work time to allow lower stress levels, relaxation and renewal.

*Universally available preventative primary healthy care with emphasis on non toxic life style and the promotion of healing. Early screening is not prevention; removing endocrine disrupting petrochemicals from the human environment is prevention.

*Electronic and media-free zones for families and especially for small children to allow relationships with family, friends, self and nature to grow. Take the TV’s out of the kids rooms. The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends that children under 2 years of age be exposed to NO television….that’s ZERO television.

*More time outside, particularly in sunshine so that Vitamin D levels are adequate in warm weather.

*Priority to physical work and exercise to balance current sedentary life style. Being outside isn’t ”therapy”…it’s Life!

*More universal community service

These personal goals tie in directly to numerous regulatory policies such as power plant mercury emissions.

Yes, we need our society to provide paid parental leave so we can provide early care and breastfeeding for our babies. We need a USDA that makes non-toxic farming a national priority. We need to wake up and democratically demand these things because such priorities, not access to disease care insurance, as important as it is, is the fundamental root of a healthy and secure population.