Today is the sixth anniversary of my husband Tony’s sudden cardiac arrest. It was six years ago that he nearly died (well, technically did die) and was saved by the incredible work of Seattle’s firefighters and Medic One trained paramedics, along with the doctors and staff at the University of Washington Medical Center who valiantly continued the work begun in the field, including putting him in a medically induced coma, chilling his body (aka Therapeutic Hypothermia) to preserve brain function, and finally after 4 days that seemed to last forever, bring him out of that coma and back to me. If you’d like to read about (or re-live) some of that time, I recently rediscovered the blog that I had created at the time to share Tony’s progress. (side note: I LOVE the Internet because I had actually totally forgotten I had created it!)
As time goes by, I grow more grateful. The magnitude and impact of what these paramedics (and all involved) did increases over time. Each day that goes by makes the gift greater- a slow ripple growing ever outward across a lake of time. I am so thankful for our dear friends & neighbors who stood bravely with me in our kitchen as the paramedics worked for nearly an hour before getting a pulse. I am so grateful to our friends, his fraternity brothers, our co-workers, and family- all of whom provided a steady stream of support while Tony was in the hospital, including meals, child-care, and most of all- love and emotional support for all of us.
This year, my gratitude took on a new dimension as a high school classmate of mine, a charming, warm, vibrant mother of two, suffered a similar event- but with a heartbreaking outcome. I was so hopeful for her recovery when I first learned that she had suffered a cardiac arrest, but it soon become clear that she was not as fortunate as Tony. My heart aches for her and her beautiful family, and makes me more aware than ever of the importance and power of world-class emergency response and pre-hospital care.
Which brings me to another thought, as someone who works now in Global Health- the importance of strong health systems. Today, the Ebola crisis is highlighting and bringing attention, not only to the need for rapid, comprehensive emergency response to crisis, but perhaps more important over the long-run, this crisis will renew the focus on the importance of a strong health systems across the board.
In developing countries, fragile health systems can quickly crumble and buckle under the shock of a crisis- whether precipitated by a natural disaster, disease outbreak, famine, or war- but even in developed countries (I am looking at you- US of A), systems that do not receive the investment in infrastructure, maintenance, and growth will stagnate and deteriorate to a dangerous degree. I do not see what is happening in the US with Ebola as a symptom of that- yet. Rather, I’d point to the recent issues with the VA system for Veterans as a more concrete example of the slow degradation in care and process that does not often generate headlines but does contribute to poor outcomes and even death for those dependent on the system.
The WHO defines a Health System as: A health system consists of all organizations, people and actions whose primary intent is to promote, restore or maintain health. This includes efforts to influence determinants of health as well as more direct health-improving activities. A health system is therefore more than the pyramid of publicly owned facilities that deliver personal health services. It includes, for example, a mother caring for a sick child at home; private providers; behaviour change programmes; vector-control campaigns; health insurance organizations; occupational health and safety legislation. It includes inter-sectoral action by health staff, for example, encouraging the ministry of education to promote female education, a well-known determinant of better health.
It is a fact, that the strong front-end to the health system that has been built here in Seattle, through both public and private support- saved Tony’s life. I have no doubt that in nearly any other city in the world, Tony would have died. So, hooray for us- but that standard of care should be more widely available. We have the technology, the systems, the proof that it works- it needs to be available to every person, not just us lucky Pacific Northwesterners.
I feel like I am in a unique position having been the beneficiary of the world’s leading emergency response care, now working for an organization dedicated to improving Global Health (in large part through the systematic strengthening of Health Systems), and because of the time that Tony and I spent as public health volunteers in Kenya 10 years ago- to truly understand how crucial a robust, comprehensive, accessible system is.
Whether thinking about it from the micro view of one single, solitary life saved to the macro view of saving millions of lives through the development and distribution of life-saving, disease-preventing vaccines around the world, the current Ebola crisis presents the public with the opportunity to recognize the absolutely vital value of a strong health system- from the local paramedic, to the community health worker, to the importance of childhood vaccination, to mental health care, to the funding needed across the board.
We must support our communities, our state, and most importantly our national government, in the incredibly important work of strengthening and modernizing our existing health care system. It is a huge and costly undertaking, but the benefits over the long-run are immeasurable and incredibly worthwhile. At some point, it will be your life or the life of a loved-one that will be saved or improved.
In the meantime and on a more personal level, I encourage you to do what I am going to do tonight- go home and hug your loved ones. Take a moment to really look at them with an eye to what your life would be like without them. It only takes a few moments for that feeling to settle in your heart. Then give them the kind of hug that will make them laugh with delight and surprise, make them say, “What’s gotten into you?!”
You can just reply and say, “Oh, I’m just so glad you are here.”
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