Memories of Nixon and healthcare

Friday, October 17, 2008

I almost gave Nixon influenza, but the Secret Service saved him.

That's the way I remember an incident that helped shape my view of the military, public health and what might be worth retelling this week.

Dad moved Mom and me to a house near the Bethesda Naval Hospital in 1954. As the son of a lieutenant colonel, I was eligible for medical services where presidents get annual physical exams.

One year during Nixon's first term, I had my worst case of the flu, so I drove myself to the Navy clinic. It was easy. It was effective and I didn't know what day it was, but I ended up waiting in one of the many golden brown, oak chairs made during the Great Depression for the government.

I was tremendously depressed. I had a fever. I'm sure I filled the hallway with germs because I was also sneezing. My eyes were closed and I tried to sleep in the hard, but oddly comfortable chair, carved as it was for a human seat, if you sat in it the right way.

The chair was in a hall in what might be called the bowels of the hospital tower.

A big man in a blackish-blue suit placed his hand on my shoulder. I opened an eye, cocked my head sideways and looked up.

He was a clean-cut fellow, but I regretted to see what I thought was a hearing aid that didn't seem to fit well.

He kept pressing it against the side of his head. During the Vietnam era, there were a lot of service men and women in the hospital with disabilities. He also seemed to have a lump under his left arm. I wondered if he'd been wounded.

"The doctor will see you now," he said. "Just go in there."

It sounded like good news for me, but as it turns out he was a member of President Nixon's security team, walking way ahead of the entourage that was making its way from where the annual physical is conducted and toward a nondescript side door where a car was waiting for a quarter-mile drive to the helicopter pad.

After walking into the doctor's office-area, and realizing that it was empty, I turned around and called out to the man in the dark suit, "Hey, there's nobody here."

The words went through the door as several men walked by and it became clear that I'd just been cleared from the hall so the president could walk through; through my cloud of germs.

Nixon resigned when I was a radio newsman in Griffin, Ga., where my Aunt Franny was related to the Spaulding County Public Health director. I've come to know other such directors, including Dr. Bob Sanders of Murfreesboro who was nicknamed by Gov. Ned McWherter as Dr. Seatbelt because of his successful campaign to get America's first seatbelt law enacted; yes, here in Tennessee.

Bob and Franny's uncle took care of mothers and their babies like I was treated by Navy doctors.

Before moving south for news jobs, I read and heard news about Nixon imposing price controls. It was hailed as a move only someone like Nixon could do because he was a Republican. This week, there's been another reversal of political party dogma. You probably know we have what amounts to the nationalization of some of the biggest banks in the country. Dither with the details if you will. This is macro-economics.

When I moved to Tennessee, I was amazed that the new governor, Lamar Alexander, a Republican, had just been sworn-in early to succeed a criminal-pardoning Gov. Ray Blanton, a Democrat. Politically, things seemed reversed here with a Republican succeeding a disgraced Democrat.

I don't think anybody will suggest that our next president should be sworn in early, but as this world's economic woes are cured, America ought to turn to its public health issues. Many of the answers are at what's now called the National Naval Medical Center and across Wisconsin Avenue at the National Institutes of Health.

Government run well is dull. You've not heard much about the Naval Hospital or NIH, but you know when you feel poor.