When I was a little girl growing up in the Depression era, most responsibility for health care and preventing diseases rested with parents. The main prescriptions for my nine siblings and me: a healthy diet, cleanliness, and plenty of fresh air, physical activity and cod liver oil.
Of course, parents weren’t completely on their own: All children were vaccinated for smallpox. But few of us got through our childhoods without contracting measles, chicken pox, mumps and whooping cough, all of which required us to stay at home with warning signs posted outside. When we eventually emerged, we were immunized from that disease.
Doctors still made house calls back then, for serious problems such as heart disease, bone fractures or minor surgical procedures. A visit might cost two or three dollars, which was sometimes paid in goods. My husband recalls that when he and his twin brother were in first or second grade, the doctor came to their house to take their tonsils out on a Saturday morning so they wouldn’t miss any school (tonsillectomies were considered a standard preventive for sore throats in young children up to the 1950s). Their surgery was performed on the kitchen table. Postoperative care consisted of ice cream and bed rest.
Babies were born at home, too, with a midwife or neighbor in attendance. Afterward, many were placed in sunny windows to soak up vitamin D. I remember that when one of my baby sisters contracted pneumonia, she was treated at home in a curtained-off room with the windows opened for added oxygen. Since it was wintertime, my parents took turns keeping watch day and night, huddled in coats, hats and blankets.
Home sweet hospital
Health care was no problem for me once I left home: After high school, I entered nursing school on the recommendation of our doctor. I lived in a nurses’ residence at a large Buffalo, N.Y., hospital, where I had excellent care from the best doctors on staff for the entire three years. After all, where can you get better care than living in a hospital?
My first job was at the same hospital’s outpatient clinic, but now that I had graduated, I was responsible for my own health care. When I needed to go to the doctor, I paid cash per visit. And when I eventually needed to get health insurance, I paid small monthly payments.
Health care was a lot less expensive in 1945, yet there were still many poor and uninsured people. But even if they couldn’t pay much, they got fine care at my hospital; I remember visits that cost 25 cents. In contrast, more than 40 million American adults went without a needed health service such as medical care, prescription medicine or dental care in 2005 because they couldn’t afford it, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
At age 85, I count myself very fortunate: I have government-sponsored Medicare plus private insurance, a great primary care physician who practices preventive medicine, and a superb cardiologist at one of the top 50 hospitals in the U.S. I wish everybody had what I have, but in 2006, the Census Bureau says, some 47 million Americans — nearly 16 percent of us — had no health insurance.
Health care costs, of course, have skyrocketed along with the price of insurance. Today the United States spends $7,129 per capita, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. That’s twice as much as any other country on earth.
And what do we get for our money? An average life expectancy of 78.14 years. That’s nearly eight years younger than I am right now — and it’s an unimpressive No. 47 compared to other countries, according to the CIA Factbook.
And what’s really disgraceful to me as a retired health professional is our infant mortality rate: We rank 43rd in the world, down from 12th in 1960 and 21st in 1990, says the same CIA Factbook. This is not because people aren’t putting babies in sunny windows these days; it’s to do with poor public health practices, socioeconomic conditions and availability of health care to infants and pregnant women.
The right to express an opinion is a precious privilege of every American, but along with that comes a responsibility: to listen with respect to the ideas of our fellow citizens and the proposals of our elected representatives.
Kitty Schindler, 85, grew up one of 10 children of a Pennsylvania coal miner during the Depression. Now she shares her perspectives on these challenging times with TODAYshow.com readers. If you have a question or comment for Kitty, send her an e-mail! To Ask Kitty, click here .
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