The Terry Schiavo tragedy just won't let go of my imagination. It is tempting to move on, to shift our focus, to look for the next public circus to distract ourselves from the painful truths opened by the still-fresh experience in Florida. But until we've teased out a few answers for ourselves, the contradictions are too extreme to set aside comfortably.
The Schiavos' private pain turned into a too-public sideshow for weeks precisely because it raised questions about our self-congratulatory belief that we're a culture devoted to, committed to, human life, as the president proclaims. Yet our religious faiths insist that death is not to be feared; it is in fact only the "doorway to real life of which this world is but a smudgy reflection."
Simultaneously, the Schiavos' pain provoked doubts about a second way we like to view ourselves, as a society willing to push the frontiers of technology as far as they can be pushed, a society eager to put scientific know-how to work for human betterment. We also value, it turned out, the quality of life, and want it to be more than simply a blip on a monitor.
It also turned out that we are concerned about paying for the cost of that technology; although that is not necessarily something we are proud to speak too loudly about.
What the Schiavos went through has demonstrated unavoidably that our greatest technological advances almost always bring with them a counterweight, a shadow, a sort of sadness or a deficit that can more than balance the benefits they bestow.
All of this mental and emotional turmoil came rushing back earlier this week when I got an e-mail from friends in El Salvador who were desperate to find a resource for a young man with whom they have worked for several years. Hector is 21, a brilliant university student with a great future ahead of him. However he has a potentially fatal condition in his intestines which requires sophisticated surgery unavailable in his Third World homeland.
He has been hospitalized in San Salvador for four months. Several North American hospitals have been contacted and are prepared to assist—if he has a way to finance the cost. Unless his family can come up with the half a million dollars such surgery will require, Hector is doomed to a painful, slow death.
This is where his family and friends began the desperate search for some sort of miracle. Not a technological miracle (the procedure is one that is fully within the capability of our medical specialists) but a financial miracle. If he were a North American, there would be a way: Medicaid perhaps, or special categories of financial support for difficult cases through a foundation or March of Dimes type of organization.
If he were an Englishman, a Dutch citizen or a Canadian, he would have to wait until national health care had hospital space and a surgeon available, but he would be able to access the needed care.
But as a Central American, his plight is particularly difficult. As committed as we might be to pushing back the frontiers of medical techno-miracles, we still tend to draw the line at the nation's borders. Let his own country look after Hector (if they can). We have our own to care for first.
As committed as we might be to preserving life, we haven't quite mastered the technique for categorizing lives that deserve preservation and distinguishing them from those that just don't deserve that same level of preservation.
As devoted as we are to our faith and its injunction to help our neighbor, we still get a little fuzzy when it comes to deciding just who is our neighbor ... and particularly if they don't have HMO care.
I'm sure the millions that were spent on publicizing, litigating and extending the lifespan of Terry Schiavo were all dollars well spent. I only wish a fraction of that same concern (and of that money) could be freed up for Hector to make it possible for the world to benefit from the incredible potential that he represents.
If you have some suggestion for how this desperate young man might be served, let me know. I'll forward your e-mail to the family in San Salvador.