9.4 million children went without health insurance in the United States in 2006.
We hear it said in passing on our car radio, or in a TV debate. The figure has an unreality to it. It is rounded off. It is too large to think about.
But they only round it off because they can't get the actual number. It is growing all the time. In the last hour, while you are reading this and perhaps a few other articles, based on last year's numbers (707,000 more uninsured children in 2006 than the year before) 80 more children lost their health insurance.
What does this mean to us as parents?
I think you will agree it should enrage us. We know from experience how terrible it is when our children get sick. We know how important it is to feel free to call the doctor without hesitation.
Yesterday my 2-year-old, Cole, suddenly began holding his left ear and screaming. It was 4:45 in the afternoon.
Acting quickly, my wife was able to call his doctor, bring Cole in to Berkeley Pediatrics, and find out that, just as we thought, Cole had two well-advanced ear infections. By 6 pm she was home with children's Tylenol, antibiotics, and a tear-stained, flushed-cheeked (now-medicated) 2-year-old in her arms.
About an hour later, he woke up screaming. I ran upstairs to his room.
"Too hot!" he said to me, holding his left ear again. "Daddy, get it out!"
I felt helpless. I held his curly-haired head in my hand. I kissed around his ear softly. I told him it would get better in the morning. My wife and I took turns holding him. He eventually fell asleep.
Just then, our 7-month-old, Adeline, began screaming. We held her and rocked her, to no avail. After an hour or so, with tears still streaming from her big blue eyes, the hair on the sides of her head wet, her little body still taking occasional gasps of air, she fell asleep too.
My wife and I climbed into bed, prepared for a long night.
It turned out to be all right. Adeline slept with us. Cole woke up only once. The sun rose.
But part of our sanity last night was knowing that the doctor had seen Cole. He would see him again if the discomfort continued. He asked specific and mysterious questions, like, "Does his neck appear to be stiff?" We were in the hands of someone who could truly help and contain the infection.
Most of all, we knew that we were not alone in our singular focus last night. We had 3000 years of Western medicine and a knowledgeable, steady presence backing us up.
Every parents knows this horrible experience of having one of his or her children get sick. When I hear about any sick child, a friend's or even a stranger's, I feel immediate, visceral empathy for the parents. Somehow I feel closer to them, as if we are all family in some non-sentimental, matter-of-fact way.
A passage I read this spring in Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope, shapes how I think of him and Michelle and their girls. It may be part of why I support him so strongly. Obama wrote:
"One night five years ago, Michelle and I were awakened by the sound of our younger daughter, Sasha, crying in her room. Sasha was only three months old at the time, so it wasn’t unusual for her to wake up in the middle of the night. But there was something about the way she was crying, and her refusal to be comforted, that concerned us. Eventually we called our pediatrician, who agreed to meet us at his office at the crack of dawn. After examining her, he told us that she might have meningitis and sent us immediately to the emergency room.
"It turned out that Sasha did have meningitis, although a form that responded to intravenous antibiotics. Had she not been diagnosed in time, she could have lost her hearing or possibly even died. As it was, Michelle and I spent three days with our baby in the hospital, watching nurses hold her down while a doctor performed a spinal tap, listening to her scream, praying she didn’t take a turn for the worse.
"Sasha is fine now, as healthy and happy as a five-year-old should be. But I still shudder when I think of those three days; how my world narrowed to a single point, and how I was not interested in anything or anybody outside the four walls of that hospital room—not my work, not my schedule, not my future.
"And I am reminded that unlike Tim Wheeler, the steelworker I met in Galesburg whose son needed a liver transplant, unlike millions of Americans who’ve gone through a similar ordeal, I had a job and insurance at the time.
"Americans are willing to compete with the world. We work harder than the people of any other wealthy nation. We are willing to tolerate more economic instability and are willing to take more personal risks to get ahead. But we can only compete if our government makes the investments that give us a fighting chance—and if we know that our families have some net beneath which they cannot fall.
"That’s a bargain with the American people worth making."
I believe that, regardless of political party, that's a bargain every parent should insist on this election.