In the first grade at David Hill Elementary School in Akron, Ohio, a classmate of mine literally broke out in measles right in front of me. Sure enough, a few days later, I got the measles. I don’t recall its being too bad except that I had a high fever and I began seeing “floaters” which I had never noticed before. Unfortunately, right after getting “over” the measles, I came down with pneumonia and had another high fever. Whatever the reasoning, I found myself in a hospital ward with probably 15-20 other kids. Initially, the worst part of the experience was that I had to lie there in what was essentially a crib. I had outgrown a crib years before and it was humiliating to be caged up in a crib.
At that point in time, the medical community had decided that the best thing for everyone concerned was to limit parental visiting hours to a half hour in the middle of the day and an hour in the evening. Although I certainly enjoyed playing with my friends at school, being deprived of friends or relatives for all but an hour and a half a day was crushing. None of the kids could touch each other in the hospital but we could talk a little, and sometimes scream. One of the kids in the ward had been badly burned and they periodically came to change his bandages. Before this, I had mainly heard kids scream as a kind of protest or to get attention from their parents or teachers. This guy’s screams arose from a different place in his throat and reached an altogether different acoustic plane. His screams were not designed to get sympathy or attention; they weren’t “designed” screams at all. If you consider evolution as a kind of “designer,” then these screams were “designed” to warn every other member of his species to get the hell away from here as fast as humanly possible. Only we couldn’t. We were caged.
Occasionally, a kid would get better and be released from the prison-like hospital ward. Or, perhaps they let them out early for good behavior. I wasn’t sure, but I reckoned that good behavior couldn’t hurt. I tried, therefore, to lie still for my penicillin shots twice daily. I pretty much failed at that endeavor. It wasn’t so much that the shots were painful as that they were invasive. I still hate the idea of a needle with chemicals being plunged into my body. There is a reason, after all, that human bodies come with skin!
I soon discovered, however, that hospitals offer up even worse things than shots. I was admitted late at night and my first morning, a nurse came by and placed a capsule into an empty drinking glass beside my bed. Because I was so “sick” I was only allowed a very soft and bland diet. I did feel sick. But I also felt very much that I would have been capable of eating a hamburger, hot dog, or slice or turkey. But no. I was stuck with jello, gelatin, bouillon and juice. But my first course for the day was to be my little pill. About a half hour after the first nurse had deposited a capsule in my empty water tumbler, another nurse would come by to “give me my meds.” Her first act was to lift up the pill so carefully laid in the water tumbler. However, when she went to pick it up, the capsule stuck and then disintegrated. “No problem,” said the nurse cheerily. “We’ll give it to you with orange juice.” Indeed, she then mixed the contents of the capsule with orange juice. I had to drink it all. And so I did. And it stayed down. For about 30 seconds. Then I threw up. There was something about this particular mixture taken on an empty stomach which I could not stomach. Just thinking about it now still nauseates me a half century later.
The next day, before breakfast, a nurse came in and placed a capsule into my empty water glass. I explained to her that this was not a good idea because the second nurse would break it when she tried to lift it up. She pooh-poohed that as nonsense and went on her way. About an hour later, the second nurse came by to give me my meds. I explained to her to be very careful or the capsule would break. “Nonsense,” she said, “the capsule won’t break.” So, she lifted it up and the capsule broke. “No problem,” said the nurse cheerily. “We’ll give it to you with orange juice.” Indeed, she then mixed the contents of the capsule with orange juice. I had to drink it all. And so I did. And it stayed down. For about 30 seconds. Then I threw up. There was something about this particular mixture taken on an empty stomach which I could not stomach.
And, so it went. Every day for ten days the same exact thing happened. Looking back, it is rather amazing I even survived. Eventually, either the doctor gave up on me or my parents missed me or the hospital needed the bed for a patient that provided a higher revenue source. Whatever the reason, I was eventually paroled. It certainly cannot have been for good behavior. My release, whatever the reason, was right before Easter and I weighed 48 pounds nearly seven years old. We had ham and yams and mashed potatoes and gravy for Easter dinner. I ate and ate. No doubt, the penicillin helped kill the pneumonia germs. But I really think the Easter dinner is what cured me — that, and being home in a warm house rather than caged on a ward with the screams of a burn victim and worse, the friendly banter of nurses who would never listen to a mere kid. There can be no doubt that pills are often a cure for disease. But sometimes, whatever the scale of the disease, it isn’t so much a little pill as a nourishing environment that restores the balance of health.
On today’s TV one can find advertisements for pills that promise to cure every ailment that humanity ever had as well as hundreds of other ailments no-one ever realized were ailments. “Do you suffer from wrinkly elbow skin when you straighten your arm? There’s a pill for that!” “Are there calluses on your feet? There’s a cream for that!” “You are eighty years old and you look eighty years old? No problem! We can fix that with operations and injections!” And, then, whilst someone tip-toes through a sunlit host of golden daffodils with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy playing in the background, there is a rapid recital of side-effects. “Some patients may experience slight exploding of the liver. Tell your doctor if you have ever had a beer. Cure-it-all isn’t for all patients. If you experience sudden blindness, deafness, or death, stop taking Cure-it-all and seek medical help immediately.”
I have no doubt that there have been real advances in medicines for a number of real diseases both deadly and more minor. But how much of our health care costs are really vanity costs? You have a body that adapts to the situation. If there are calluses on your feet, there’s a reason! Many millions of dollars are spent on advertising to get small children into the habit of eating lots of refined sugar even though we know this is bad for kids and helps insure that they will overeat and likely be sick in adulthood. Many millions of dollars are spent on advertising to get adults to eat unhealthy foods. Then, millions more are spent to make you think you are a weak-willed blob if you are overweight. Then, millions more are spent to make you think that a pill will make you skinny despite a bad diet that you initially got into largely because of the advertising dollars.
What if people instead spent money and time making really nutritious meals? What if, instead of watching pro football, people went for a hike with their kids? Maybe we wouldn’t need quite so many pills, capsules, shots, and operations. Here’s the dilemma. Some pills are really useful under certain circumstances for some people. But profits will be greater if the pills are used by every person in every circumstance. The CEOs of drug companies are paid on the basis of their company’s profits. They are not paid on the basis of their company’s products effectiveness or of the cost/benefit ratio of their products. Nope. Profit. That’s it. If you were the CEO of a drug company and suppressed results about the negative or even deadly side-effects of one of your profitable drugs, that would be seen as “good business.” If, as CEO, you cornered the market on a class of drugs and then jacked the price up so that people could no longer afford a life-saving medicine and nutritious food and a warm house, tough! On the other hand, if you were an employee in a drug company and stole a couple pens, you would most likely be fired. Most large companies these days require their employees to take ethics training which explains, for example, that you shouldn’t lie or steal. Typically, such training is “introduced” by a signed letter from the CEO explaining how they take ethics very seriously and that you should too. Clearly, what they mean by “ethics” is different from what most people think it means.
If a system is broken, it should probably be fixed or replaced. Unfortunately, doing so is a little more complicated than just taking a pill. Often, the people taking actions and making decisions are far removed from those suffering the consequences. Nurse One puts a capsule in the bottom of a water glass and rushes off. Nurse Two comes in later and tries to pull up the capsule spilling the contents and concocts a nightmare-flavored orange juice. Orderly One cleans up the mess. Neither Nurse Two nor Orderly One ever tells Nurse One about the mistake. Of course, Kid One might mention it day after day, but who cares what a mere kid says?
Imagine a pill called a “Step-Back” pill. If you took this pill, you might actually listen to what a mere kid says. If you took this pill, you might take a look at the whole system of which you were a part. If you took the “Step-Back” pill, you might find yourself questioning why things are done the way they are and how they might be improved. If you took the “Step-Back” pill, you might even find yourself wonder why it is, exactly, that when very very rich people who head up drug companies and banks cheat millions of people there is no penalty but if someone robs a drug store, they will likely spend a good portion of their life in prison. Rumor has it that the “Step-Back” pill was actually invented many years ago but the drug companies were too worried about side-effects to attempt bringing it to market.
The most severe side-effect of the “Step-Back” pill is that you may well stop playing the game of behaving so as to limit your own health. But if you did that, you would not have to buy various potions, pills, and capsules to regain your health. Why rock the boat? Unfair-Status-Quo is a bitter capsule to swallow, but luckily it’s sugar coated. I’ll just rest it here at the bottom of your water glass. Someone will be along in an hour or so. They will lift up the capsule and spill the bitter insides into the glass. But you know what is really an excellent emetic on an empty stomach?
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