At the top of this post is an amazing picture. It may not look amazing; after all it's just a picture of me walking with my 22-year-old son, Wesley. But it is amazing. It's very amazing. And I'll tell you why.
Less than a month ago, Wesley was suffering so badly from degenerative disc disease that he could not walk more than a dozen steps without severe pain.
If that seems odd to you, it's only because it is. Severe spinal problems usually don't strike someone so young. But Wes somehow managed to draw the genetic short straw. Wes' father has the same condition, although his didn't really get severe until the last few years, when he reached his mid forties.
For Wes, the problems began when he was in high school. He complained of intermittent leg pain and the family doctor he went to always attributed the problem to muscle strain from athletics. It never occurred to him to check a kid presenting with leg soreness for a back problem.
So the pain continued off and on and then over a year ago, the problem got so bad that Wesley finally went to see an orthopedist who scheduled an MRI. The results were devastating. Two discs in Wesley's back were so extremely herniated that the doctor said his spine looked more appropriate to an elderly person than to a young man.
Subsequent doctors used words like "awful" and "horrible" to describe his condition.
But the doctors he saw were reluctant to schedule surgery. Back surgery is a serious matter, especially for one so young. The standard therapies were tried first. Wesley got painful steroid injections in his back. He got an inversion table. And then there was the pain medications - Vicodin. Percocet. Neurontin. They kept him in a daze and altered his mood.
When he tried to go out and do all the normal things other kids his age did he found that he simply couldn't. One night Wes and his sister, 25-year-old Jessica, went to a downtown club with some friends. Everyone was dancing and Wesley - for once - wanted to join in. Jessica told told me that when she missed her brother a few moments later she went looking and found him keeling by a wall near the restroom, crying.
He told her, "I just want to be a normal guy and do what everyone else does. But when I try to do what everyone else does, it hurts."
We hoped and prayed he'd be cleared for surgery. It seemed to be the only way he'd ever get relief. And finally, finally he was. Nothing was working - the therapies had all failed - and the doctor he was seeing at the time said that surgery was the only hope if Wesley were ever to have a normal life. What's more, we were told, Wesley's back was getting worse. If he didn't get the surgery, he was at risk of becoming permanently paralyzed by his condition.
But then came word from the insurance company. Wesley had a very basic policy through work with a very small cap that had already been exhausted by the tests and pain management he'd undergone. They would not pay for the surgery. Wes was devastated. We were frantic. Every physician approached wanted more money than his dad and I could come up with on our own, even together.
Do you know what it's like to stand by and watch your child suffer knowing that an operation could give him back what he's lost? Do you know what it's like to jump when the phone rings because you fear it's the hospital calling to say your son has been admitted, made dead from the waist down by what was a correctable condition?
I hope you never do.
In August, Wesley's father had back surgery. Ironic, huh? That's what we all thought, even him. Wesley needed it worse, but his dad was fortunate enough to have a better insurance policy through work. The surgery lasted a couple of hours and Wes' dad was home the same day. And the relief from his back pain was so immediate he became more determined than ever to see that his son got that surgery.
So when Wes' dad went back for his check-up a few weeks later, he told the doctor who'd fixed his 46-year-old back about his 22-year-old son's problem. The doctor listened and then asked if he could see Wes' MRI films. After taking a look at them, he called Wes' dad and told him something Truly Amazing.
The doctor said if we could come up with a thousand dollars and the pre-surgical consultation fee then he would do the surgery and set Wesley up on an affordable payment plan.
We couldn't believe it. Could it really be true? The figure was well within reach for us. We went for the consult and Wes was scheduled for a three hour surgery.
The surgery took place on October 15 and lasted four hours - four long, tension-filled hours. Afterwards when the doctor called us back, we knew right away that it had been tougher than any of us expected, even him. Wesley's discs had been so swollen and herniated that during the process of removing part of one and extricating it from the nerve it was pressing against, the nerve sheath had torn. Fortunately the damage was not permanent; when Wesley woke up he was able to move both of his legs.
Then the doctor told us something else. He said that once he opened Wes up, he realized that his back was worse than even he had imagined. He said because of the state of herniation, Wesley had been in danger of imminent, permanent paralysis.
Think about those words for a second. Think about them in the context of a 22-year-old man.
I still get chills when I ponder those words, and not just because it's my kid we're talking about.
Wesley went back to his dad's that same afternoon. I'd have never thought it would be possible, but the doctor said he'd do better recuperating surrounded by family than in a hospital bed. The first night was rough. Wes suffered muscle spasms and little could be done to relieve the agony. Recovery was painful, but Wesley soldiered through with remarkable strength and resolve and each day brought improvement. Three days post-op he was walking. He went back to his apartment two weeks later. Tomorrow he goes for his first post-surgical visit. He's hoping the doctor will give him the all clear to go back to work.
Today he and I took a walk and he told me he's still getting used to getting his life back. For so long he's been looking in on a window of an existence he used to have, watching his friends continuing to do all the things he used to take for granted - dancing, hiking, surfing, walking through downtown. These things that seem so mundane to the rest of us now fill him with excitement. To see him hopeful and happy again....words fail me. I have none to describe how this makes my heart sing.
Every day that goes by, every time I see Wesley walk and laugh and tell me how happy he is to move without pain, how relieved he is to live without pain medication, I say a silent prayer of thanks for that wonderful doctor.
And then the sadness sets in. Because while we found a merciful doctor through what really amounted to a quirk of fate - through chance, really - there are hundreds and hundreds of families out there who aren't as fortunate.
My son, my 22-year-old son - a young man who is otherwise healthy and vital in every way, came dangerously close to being permanently paralyzed for life. He is walking again not because of this health care system, but in spite of it. It was the mercy of one good man - not this health care system - that has given him a new lease on life.
And in an world where profit and greed are the prevailing motivators, I don't have to tell you that Mercy is in short supply. We were among the lucky ones, but somewhere tonight parents are huddled together crying in fear over what tomorrow holds for their child. And there's no one coming to save them. For them, there is no Good Doctor. They are facing a different kind of mercy - the mercy of the insurance companies. In short, they are at the mercy of the merciless.
I watched the health care debate this weekend with interest. I was terribly disappointed that my congressman, Democrat Mike McIntyre, did not vote for the bill. After Wesley's surgery, I called his office and spoke to one of his aides, a young man named Ned. He seemed genuinely sympathetic.
I wish Ned was my congressman instead of Mike McIntyre.
Like so many other Blue Dogs, McIntyre's fear of the tea baggers has him tucking tail and rolling over in submission. Or perhaps he's hoping for a big campaign donation from the insurance lobby. Who knows. I suppose when you're a Congressman with excellent insurance benefits yourself the story of some 22-year-old man's brush with a lifelong disability isn't moving enough to get you to stick your political neck out.
Had we simply relied on the system Wesley would be in a wheelchair, a permanently disabled ward of the state. I'm not sure how that is cost effective; perhaps some of you worried about the "cost" of health reform can explain it to me.
It seems ironic to me that when Congressmen like Mike McIntyre - who cite costs as the "real" reason" they're opposed to reform - don't seem to stop and consider cost when sending our sons and daughters off to war. They seem all too willing to spend billions getting people crippled or killed; when it comes to war the motto seems to be "Spare No Expense." Yet they are strangely reluctant to spend billions to prevent disabilities or save lives here at home.
Maybe that's because for those congressmen it's easier to see people who need health care reform as faceless statistics. But we aren't faceless, Mr. McIntyre. Behind every statistic is a family. A family with a story. And this is ours.