Richard Reeves

Why You're Your Own Doctor

DENVER -- All of your adult life it seems you are told that you are your own doctor. You don't believe that, or perhaps, just don't think about it, until there inevitably comes a time when you have to spend a good deal of time with physicians.

It's usually too late. Like most everybody else hit with serious and continuing family medical problems, I've learned the hard way that doctors have the same accuracy rate as everybody else, perhaps more than auto mechanics, quite a bit less than National Football League officials. Words like misdiagnosis, malpractice and plain old confusion, fatigue, laziness, arrogance and stupidity become larger parts of your vocabulary.

And you realize that often it is your own fault; you deferred to "expertise" or did not understand what you were being told by impressively credentialed medical men and women who may not have understood themselves. So it goes: the seven ages of men -- and women. In other words, doctors, like politicians, almost never answer a simple question by saying "yes" or "no." They prefer to cite statistics, a technique which should always be met with suspicion.

Actually, I am not picking on doctors. I might like to, but that is raging against the night, against the unknown. You have to be your own doctor because you learn that doctors are just like everybody else, except they have better (and much more expensive) toys -- gleaming white machines as mysterious as flying saucers.

I am commenting on life in the age of knowledge. There is too much of it, knowledge, around these explosive days. We are in a time warp in which no one knows enough to connect the dots. We are, with the help of Google, on our own. We are not only our own doctors, we are also our own health-care experts, plumbers, electricians, nutritionists, travel security agents and most anything else you must think about in these overcaffeinated times.

Does anyone understand or believe the numbers on cereal boxes? On Christmas Day, did anyone believe the people in uniforms at airports from Africa to Europe to Detroit actually know what they were looking for or doing? The near catastrophe on Flight 253 was an important lesson. The best defense against air terrorists is not machinery; it is other passengers. Us, we on our own.

David Brooks, the thoughtful New York Times columnist, blamed some of this on institutions in a New Year's Day column titled "The God That Fails," on a sort of American return to the faith of childhood, saying:

"During the middle third of the 20th century, Americans had impressive faith in its own institutions. It was not because those institutions always worked well." -- he cites the Federal Reserve -- "But there was a realistic sense that human institutions are necessarily flawed. ... That mature attitude seems to have largely vanished. Now we seem to expect perfection from government and then throw temper tantrums when it is not achieved."

I'm not so sure about that. I am not meeting many people these days who expect government perfection or even competence. Quite the opposite, I'm afraid.

What got me thinking these discouraging things was not so much Brooks' column, but a response sent to him by a veterinarian from McKenna, Wash., named David Jolly, who blames Ronald Reagan, "One of the most damaging figures in American history."

Is that fair? Quoting part of Dr. Jolly's letter:

"The Reagan Delusion is the simplistic formula that seeks to define America's problems in a way that posits an entirely good 'us' and an entirely bad 'them.' It has led to a nearly bankrupt, ungovernable country with crumbling infrastructure and ever-widening gaps in income, wealth and general prosperity. The formula is: America's enemies (are) government (other than military spending) and economic support of mega-business, plus taxes, plus regulation, plus general liberal wussiness."

You may not agree with Dr. Jolly or Brooks, or Reagan or me. But we all seem to end up in about the same place: Something has gone terribly wrong in America, and you're on you own, buddy!

You're your own doctor.

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