When you see or read about an IED exploding in Afghanistan you can’t smell the distinctive odor of the explosive or the smell of blood. There is so much of what happens in this world that we can’t really know what it’s like to be there.
When the great health care debate in congress is reported we don’t hear the names of the people who need help nor do we know the details if they are injured. We hear instead words about single payer systems, co-pay, government managed health care, and endless statistics argued by insurance companies. We don’t know very much about the people the health care system doesn’t serve.
We don’t know Bill. Bill lived on the streets of Seattle for many years. When he was near, you were aware he was there. Bill served his country in World War II and survived the deaths of many of his buddies. He fought then for what many older Americans understood as a war that really did threaten the United States.
When Bill came home he couldn’t forget the exploding mortar shells and the blood spilled on the battle field or the faces of men he knew, lying dead. He began to drink to ease the memory of death and his near escape along with the wonder of why he was still alive when so many others had perished.
Bill became a drunk and homeless. Yes, there were men who came home and restarted their lives and became successful, but Bill didn’t become normal again. At regular intervals Bill was picked up from a downtown alley with a long list of physical ailments. Like many others who had no job, or doctor, or health care provider, Bill was delivered to Harborview Hospital's emergency room.
Harborview is a rather amazing place. Run now by the University of Washington Medical School, it offers to everyone some of the finest medical care in the nation and it has a marvelous staff and nurses. One such nurse named Sunnie (now retired) remembered Bill. Harborview nurses wouldn’t consider being a nurse in Swedish where arranging flowers for well heeled patients was part of the job. Instead they chose to work at Harborview where some of their patients were men like Bill.
It takes a special person to appreciate the Bills of this world. Bill is also special in that he was thankful for his care and paid back his medical debt in the only way he could. He said thank you by sharing bits of his humor and insight into the world by way of poetry. His poetry wasn’t Shelley or Keats or what freshmen college kids read in literature class. Bill’s poetry was the poetry of the common man, which he would scrawl on bits of paper and pin on the walls of his room or the bulletin board near the nurses station. Sunnie kept a copy of one of Bill's poems. It reads:
To my dear angels!
My hair is white, I’m almost blind
The days of my youth are far behind
My neck’s so stiff can’t turn my head
And can’t hear half what’s being said
I’ve only one leg now and I can’t walk
But glory be, I sure can talk.
So this is the message I want you to get
I’m still akicking
I’m not dead yet.
Signed W.E Sellen “Bill” to you!
This is one of dozens of poems written by Bill to the nurses and doctors on 4 South at Harborview Hospital in 1958. Bill lived on Seattle’s First Avenue and died a victim of his “life style” and maybe a war.
While we hear the numbers floating around about possibly rising health care taxes, remember Bill. Bill fought for this nation and gave up his life just as surely as if he had been killed by an IED in Afghanistan. Maybe those in congress who choose war and have been speaking against health care reform might remember that in Bill died to protect their right to speak in congress against supporting the health care Bill needed at the end. They might also like his poetry.
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