Anyone passing through Brussels and interested in the history of medicine would do well to visit Notre Dame à la Rose in Lessines (photo, left), a town to the west of the city. Given over to historical tourism since the 1980s, as a "hôtel Dieu" it served to heal the poor for hundreds of years. You'll be forgiven if you think you're in a cloistered monastery: nuns dispensed treatment for body and soul in a self sufficient complex, replete with its own river and mill, vegetable garden, and farm.
You'll never complain about your doctor again once you've seen the wax image of his 17th century forebear (photo below, right). Just take a look at his instruments (those were the days of bleeding and trepanation) and count your lucky stars that you only have to say "aahh" on a dry popsicle stick tongue-depressor.
Basic as the care was, it was the best that was on offer at the time, and the nuns, doctors, and other personnel knew that if they didn't care for the sick poor, no one would. Not only would they care for body and maybe save souls, but they would have the personal satisfaction of salvation, and of doing the right thing.
Okay, fast forward to the US Congress this week, where Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan, said this of President Obama's efforts to make health care available to all Americans:
You will have to call a bureaucrat and hope to God his calculator is more compassionate and smarter than your doctor. (NY Times)
Obviously Rogers hasn't checked with his doctor, who may be one of the 450,000 clamoring for health care reform. Nor has the good Congressman had to deal with an insurance company "gatekeeper" whose job it is to find every conceivable excuse to disallow treatment of patients. Give me a government bureaucrat any day.
Here's what I can't understand: all the statistics show that the US spends way more than other advanced countries on health care, but gets results that are sub-prime, to say the least. The same Republicans who decry "government" intervention passed a massive giveaway to private insurers via Medicare during the Bush years. Their defense of health care appears to exclude dispensing it to anyone save the insurance industry lobbyists who finance their campaigns.
Do they just want to send people to the Poorhouse, that other institution from a bygone era that has gone the way of the hôtel Dieu?
Come on, people, it's not so difficult. Other countries spend far less, with better results, and it's just not an issue in politics. It's a human right. Something that the good nuns and doctors of the hôtel Dieu understood centuries ago.