Dear Senators: I Took an Oath to Do No Harm. You Should, Too.
Dear Members of the U.S. Senate,
My name is Samantha and I have been a pediatrician for exactly 360 days. I work in Southwestern Virginia, for a hospital system that also provides care to underserved parts of West Virginia and Tennessee. We mainly work with struggling families that rely on Medicaid to provide health care to their children. That means, at this exact moment, you are debating a bill that would directly impact the children that I took an oath to serve.
I could tell you countless stories of medical crises averted, serious illnesses cured, chemotherapy administered, and families counseled through the parts of parenthood that they often did not anticipate. But you are all intelligent people, and you can imagine these scenarios for yourselves. Even if you can’t, I’d hardly be the first to point these stories out.
Instead of telling you about what it means to have health care, I want to talk to you about what it means to have health insurance. I want to talk to you about what it means to a parent to worry that they can’t afford the treatment their child needs—and to know, deep down, that they might bankrupt themselves trying to keep their child safe.
First, I want to talk to you about the provisions of your bill that would chip away at coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Last week, I had the privilege of meeting a young woman and her mother in our clinic. The mother had a heart condition that is often passed genetically from parent to child. As she and I spoke about definitive testing that would tell us if her daughter carries the gene that might cause her to develop the same condition, she started to get nervous.
She was afraid that this test, which could help us treat and protect her daughter, was a medical Catch-22. Without it, we wouldn’t know how to care for her daughter. With it, her daughter might be labeled as a person with a pre-existing condition, which could make her unable to afford the care she needs. And it was all based solely on a tiny gene that has not yet even made her sick.
Even as we told her that her daughter’s heart is currently perfectly healthy—news a mother should get to receive with untainted joy—I could see her eyes fill with tears. She told us that she had been unable to get insurance coverage until recently, because of her heart condition. Insurance companies even resisted covering her children, based on the risk that they may have inherited her heart condition, despite the fact that none of them had been diagnosed.
If you pass this bill, the children who lose their insurance will still come to my clinic. Their parents will bring them even if they aren’t sure how they’ll pay, and even if they know deep down that they can’t. Parents can no more risk the well-being of their ill children than walk on water.
The doctors, nurses, and therapists I work with will still care for these kids when they come. We’ll do it even though medicine is a difficult career. We’ll do it even though it requires sacrifice and emotional risk to care so deeply for these tiny people who need us. We’ll do it not only because it is legally required of us, but because of the little pieces of our souls that our patients have come to inhabit.
I’ll do it for days like today, when I get to see a boy I have cared for since he was a newborn take some of his earliest steps and wrestle through his check-up like it was a game. I do it for the incredible growth I have witnessed in his mom and dad: a young, at-risk couple who have become thoughtful and loving parents over this past year. I do it for the moment when the baby stops pulling on my stethoscope just long enough to give me an unprompted hug, or when I give him a high-five for doing a good job and he gives me high-fives over and over until I absolutely must move on to my next task.
I am asked to give these children the care they deserve, and to do right by them and their families. In return, I get these little gifts now and then. Small rewards for living as “men and women for others”—the core belief instilled in my medical school classmates and me at our alma mater.
I like to think that you all became representatives of the American people with a similar goal—to be “men and women for others.” I like to imagine what our nation might become if lawmakers such as yourselves did your work by the same principles that guide us as caregivers through each day.
I would hope that you choose to live by at least one of our principles, known in ethics circles as non-maleficence. You might be more familiar with its colloquial phrasing, “First, do no harm.” With this health care bill, you hold the futures of millions of Americans in your hands. Please, if you keep nothing else in your heart as you vote in the upcoming days, think of your constituents and hold close the aspiration to “first, do no harm” to those who are depending on you.
With my sincerest thanks,
Samantha Cerra, M.D.