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Donna Smith

Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation

March 8th, 2012 2:54 PM

How Far We Haven’t Come in My Lifetime – Yet

It’s International Women’s Day.  While we might greet that with some passing commercial interest in the United States, in many other countries, it is a day to celebrate women – all women.  Older, younger, richer, poorer, healthy, struggling with illness or caring for others with illness, mothers or daughters, married, single, heavy or thin, blonde, brunette, all ethnicities.   It always gives me pause to think about what has changed for women and what has not during my adult life.  And it leaves me with concerns about the work I have left to do.

Five years ago, I spent International Women’s Day in Havana, Cuba, where I was a patient in a large, urban, public hospital where some of the scenes from Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary, SiCKO, were filmed.  I remember being surprised by the dozens of wishes every woman I saw received that day from both men and women around them.  There were individual, tiny roses for each woman, and there were kisses and affectionate hugs.  It was quite nice to experience the day as a celebration among and for all women.  It felt a little like Mother’s Day for all women, and it felt genuine and very healing in terms of many of us being from different nations and still being “sisters”  – only better, as I’ll explain later.

This year I am looking back on a broader section of time in my life during which it sometimes feels like the strides women have made in American society and economic life are a real mixed bag.  We’re making more money overall than we did when I was a young woman, but the gap is still really large between what a man makes and what a woman makes for comparable work in most fields. And when I look at any elected government body, most government agencies, and many private companies, men still make up the vast majority of the leadership ranks even though their constituencies are obviously more balanced.  I really thought that by now women in America would find themselves more equally positioned.  I wasn’t naïve about it, but I thought my generation would keep pushing forward more forcefully.

But what was such a gift in Cuba five years ago was really being among women (and men) giving and receiving healthcare without corporate interference.  It was and is still the only time in my life when my medical professionals were free to act in my best interests to help me be healthier.  It felt so very different.   And though the doctors and healthcare professionals in Cuba could have done whatever testing they wanted to, what they really did was work with me to find out which health issues were of concern and what would best address those concerns.  They did not jump to costly testing or new medications that would enrich others and not necessarily help me.  In fact, they gently but wisely encouraged me to step away from some medications in favor of more holistic approaches.  One of the nurses there comforted me, as she gently stroked my forehead, “Tranquilidad. Tranquilidad.  You Americans worry so much,” she said.  She was so right.

It wasn’t only joy and relief I felt on that International Women’s Day in 2007 in Cuba.  I felt intense rage about the struggle so many of us face in America trying to access appropriate healthcare even with private health insurance and never really knowing for sure if the care we are getting is what is best for us or simply what the insurance company will allow and pay for.  Lives are ruined and lost in America fighting for and about what others in the world give one another as a matter of right.  It wasn’t that the Cuban healthcare system was perfect, and I have never said that.  The country has its own challenges, and years of economic embargoes and political struggles have taken a toll on many things.  But the care I got there remains among the great gifts of my life, and I have a really hard time understanding why that same sort of gift of health and dignity is denied us in America.  (I’ll share more about my experience in Cuba in my book, but for now that’s enough.)

Providing healthcare for all as a matter of human right – under a Medicare for all model -- would be an astonishing advancement for the women in this nation.  All women.  All men.  Imagine the freedom that could come from knowing should you become sick or be injured you would not search or fight for care or be given care you might not need or be denied care that could be life-saving.  This does not have to forever stay in our imaginations.   It is not imaginary in much of the rest of the world.  The impact on gender inequality in America would be so enormous.

There is such a tenderness and strength in helping each other be healthy enough to reach our individual potentials, whatever they may be.  If I thought we could achieve that by making sure everyone had private health insurance, I’d say so.  But the motivation isn’t the right one.  Health and equality has to be the first goal of our healthcare system not wealth and corporate profits.

On this International Women’s Day 2012, I wish all my sisters a day of peace, reflection, and plans for action that will advance our common issues and help leave better conditions for our daughters and granddaughters – and top on my list is a healthcare system that heals first and does not brutalize them by putting profits before all else.

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