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Barack Obama's presidency

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George W. Bush's presidency since 2007

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From free trade to the Kosovo crisis.

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Ray McGovern on Illness and Health

By Ray McGovern
June 18, 2009

Editor’s Note: Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern – one of our favorite writers – underwent a successful medical procedure to open a clogged artery near his heart. Though Ray had health insurance, the scary moment gave him an insight into the life-and-death dilemma that Americans who lack insurance face:

Dear family and friends,

At first I thought the BEFORE picture of the arteries around my heart may have been doctored. There it was big as life...or imminent death — the circumflex artery was 90 to 99 percent blocked.

(Hadn’t heard “circumflex” since studying classical Greek. It’s what we called the mark placed over long vowels; and, sure enough, that artery had the same form as that mark.)

Turns out the picture was not doctored. But, happily, I was — by an excellent cardiologist who performed a cardio catheterization and emplaced a stent to unclog the artery. The AFTER picture showed a far happier circumflex with blood flowing freely through it.

I have not tried it yet, but I'm looking forward now to walking up that big hill from the Metro station without the minor distress. That was the only symptom I had had....and only twice, and both times the distress went away quickly.

No pressure on chest, no trouble breathing, no sweating, no dizziness; no numbness in arm or elsewhere. Just some quickly passing discomfort.

I was "sure" enough that it was nothing serious that I know I would never have gone to the doctor, IF I DID NOT HAVE HEALTH INSURANCE.

And so, by now I could well have been a heart attack victim — and maybe dead — IF I DID NOT HAVE HEALTH INSURANCE ... which some 50 million of our brothers and sisters in this wealthy country DO NOT HAVE!

Medical insurance occupies part of my knapsack of unearned privilege, the knapsack about which I am barely conscious as it adheres to me like glue.

Perhaps it's my own medical emergencies over the past year and a half — lymphoma in 2008, and then the almost-out-of-business artery — that have made me more conscious of the scandal that our country does not treat all as "created equal" when it comes to access medical care. And I think this applies in spades to before-it-is-too-late diagnostic testing, without which illnesses like mine would have remained undiagnosed and untreated.

To be blunt about it: Whether from the relatively symptom-less lymphoma (only discovered when the tumor was the size of a large orange), or as a result of the "minor distress" blockage in my artery, I most likely would be dead now — the only saving grace being that you wouldn't have to read this.

The lymphoma has been in remission for 10 months, and the oncologist — in an atypical burst of guarded optimism — has said it may even be cured! And if I regularly take the five heart-related prescriptions written for me on Tuesday, the stint should continue to do its work unstintingly, the circumflex and less circular arteries should keep the heart working, and I can die from something else!

This is my second wake-up call. (Thick Irishmen need at least two.) Maybe one needs to be affected in a personal way to gain some sense of what having no health insurance actually means.

I'm going to do all I can to promote single-payer health insurance as the only real way to get everyone covered, and urge you to do the same. Our son the doctor heartily agrees with the sizable majority of physicians who believe that single-payer is by far the best solution.

We're supposed to care about our brothers and sisters in this great country of ours, right?

No one should have to think twice before seeking needed medical help ... even after just one seemingly paltry symptom.

Thanks for your prayers and the good vibes you have sent along. Looks as if I’ll be around for a while more. Let's see if we can get medical insurance for ALL Americans.

In truth and justice,


Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. After serving as an Army infantry/intelligence officer, he spent a 27-year career as a CIA analyst. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

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