01 February 2007

A Good Turn


From the Seattle Times, January 30th, 2007:
Michael Coates cries after Dr. Heather Olson, left, of the Auburn Community
Dental Clinic, tells him his blood pressure is too high for her to administer a
pain-relief injection. Coates, suffering with four infected wisdom teeth, got the
shot later but cannot afford to have the teeth pulled as needed.
PHOTO BY JOHN LOK, SEATTLE TIMES

Greg:

Okay, you know how much of a soft touch I am when it comes to giving away money so this probably won't surprise you much. I have a funny story about how I tried really hard to help somebody by sending them some money and as hard as I tried, I just couldn't find anybody to take it. Not even the person I was trying to help.

Just a couple of days ago I saw an article in the Seattle Times that made me an amalgam of sad, outraged and filled with compassion for somebody I don't know from - well, from somebody I've never met. The story bore a picture of a man named Michael Coates. He was weeping in agony from four infected wisdom teeth, and from the dire news that he had received from the dentist. Mr. Coates has no dental insurance, being that he's from a very low income bracket, and could in no way afford to have the oral surgery he needed. To ameliorate his pain, he was numbing his mouth with ice water from a pitcher that he carried with him. And I thought Christ Jesus! How's that a way to live? Here's a grown man who works his ass off for a living (delivery driver and odd jobs) in complete agony, weeping because he can't get his teeth pulled.

There are one of three ways people - including myself - respond to things like this. 1) We're usually overwhelmed by the immensity of the problem and feel that we're completely helpless and impotent in the face of such things, shake our fists at our God, legislature, or health care system, affirm to ourselves that "something really oughtta be done about this", and turn the page. Or 2) we huck a bunch of money at the ponderous maw of such problems through the organ of some well-meaning charity organization, not meaning to stay insulated from the effected individuals, but staying several bills-length away from them anyway. (For instance, I send money to Amnesty International but I don't make a point to visit prisons.) Or finally option 3), which is to say fuck that noise, I as an individual am going to do something about the problem by helping that distressed individual right there rightfuckingnow!

I took option 3.

First I emailed the journalist who wrote the story to find out if there were other people who had expressed interest in helping Michael out. Then I called the community dental clinic mentioned in the story and asked them if I could contribute directly to them for Michael's care. After being forwarded to several King County Health offices, I had a very long conversation with a director who gave me the funky lowdown on dental coverage for the poor. It's a very short story. They've got fucking ZIP. They have general health coverage available, but dental? Forget it. And this is neverminding the fact that neglected oral care becomes very serious health issues in very short order - like heart attack and stroke. In the end, they told me that they couldn't do the surgery at the community clinic, so they had referred him to the University of Washington dental program. If I wanted to make a contribution to his care, I'd have to call them.

Meanwhile, the journalist emailed me back, told me that Michael had been screened as a patient at the UW, and with his permission, forwarded me Michael's address and phone number. I called the UW first, went through a mighty (although friendly, don't get me wrong - very friendly!) clusterfuck there which - look I won't bother you with it, but it netted zero.

You may be asking yourself why I didn't just call Michael when I got his number from the journalist. Well, you may find the answer quite revealing about my character. Although I'm quick to be a philanthropist, I also have a tiny, anxious homonculus in the back of my skull who shrieks caution and vigilance at me constantly. So I had decided that I would not make a contribution directly to Michael way back before I started making phone calls. However, I did want to make good and goddamn sure that the money I sent would be specifically for his care. I really didn't want to get on the phone with a guy who was clearly in agony, and then have him hit me up for money directly whether he completely deserved it or not. I didn't know the whole story, so how did I really know what was up? I get hit up on the streets of Chinatown by guys claiming to have fucking Ebola virus or whatever, like, every day. And I offer to buy food for panhandlers and most of the time get turned down. So there you go. And somehow I think that makes me a big jaded bourgeoisie fuckup. I'm conflicted. And I digress. So onward.

So yeah. I called Michael Coates finally. And he didn't shake me down. He was a really nice guy, albeit in a shitload of pain. I just happened to call while he was sitting in a dentist's office in Burien. I told him that I really wanted to help him out, that I knew exactly what kind of pain he was in. I told him that I had been without dental coverage once, and had four infected wisdom teeth and couldn't get them pulled for love or candy. I was living in my car some of the time back then and my life sucked from about every angle of the compass. But I, like him, went looking for help and got none. Not from friends, not from the county, not from nobody. People tend to crap their pants when you tell them that you have no income but need to find a couple grand to get your teeth yanked before you find someone with a shotgun to blow them out for free. The problem is just too big. It's just too much money. It's not that they don't want to help. They just crap themselves in a fit of financial impotence. But I told him that I had lived through that pain and I wanted to make good and goddamn sure another person didn't have to, and I was going to help. I told him I couldn't cover his whole cost (estimated at $3,000), but that I could help knock a chunk out of it. He thanked me and gave me the number of the dentist who was going to treat him and told me to give them the money. He wasn't going to take money directly from me. He said that the dentist - J. Scott Moffitt - did this kind of work out of the kindness of his heart every Friday for folks in the community.

So I called Dr. Moffitt's office and they wouldn't take my money either. They just took my name and number down and said they'd give me a call back, which they did the next day.

So here's the kicker. The oral surgeon who was scheduled to do the work on Michael said he would do it FOR FREE. That made me just about weep with joy right then and there. And they thanked me for my intended generosity and encouraged me to donate the money instead to the charity of my choice. (I'll be donating it to the King County Community Dental Clinics, and I'm gonna send Michael a few bucks directly to buy some yogurt and ice cream. I remember what it was like to get my wisdom teeth yanked. I had to use a blender to eat my birthday cake.) So the question remains: who the hell do I gotta blow to do a good deed around here?

Look, I'm really not looking for karma points or anything. I just saw a guy who was in exactly the same kind of physical and emotional pain that I had been in once, and I just really wanted to put a stop to it right the hell then. I couldn't stand the thought of him going on another minute in that state. I think it's a lot easier to approach an individual and help to relieve their suffering than it is to take on the subject of suffering as a whole. Maybe that's what keeps people - and myself - from reaching out more often. When we see one person suffering, we want to end all suffering, and the prospect of that is just too immense for one person.

I remember after September 11th, when all the politics and bullshit blew up around it. I think in some ways all of that cheapened the value of the individual lives lost. In my view, the people who died then were something greater than heroes or martyrs or victims. They were people's friends. They were somebody's wife, somebody's husband. They were mommies and daddies. The little girl I saw crying on the news that day wasn't asking her country to rise to a cause to protect our freedoms. She was asking the reporters to help her find her daddy. I felt like the importance of the death of the most significant person in her life was being both overshadowed and diluted by circumstance and politics. And that was a real tragedy in my mind. Months later, I found her daddy's name on a registry of victims and wrote a letter to her and her family. I said I was sorry, that I knew this was really out of the blue since they didn't know me, but I really wanted them to know that I was very sorry that they lost their daddy. And that was pretty much all I said. No politics, no BS, just a simple letter of condolence. They wrote me a letter back and told me how much they appreciated that. Maybe sometimes sharing a little grief is the most appropriate thing one can do. And maybe it just has to be one helping one for the business of suffering to be worked out.

Cheers. Remember to floss.

-Thaddeus

2 comments:

iworkfortheman said...

What happened here? I come to the dear gregory blog to read interesting pontifications on Seattle weather, peppered by profanity and frequent references to the authors reckless youth. And then one day these posts cease and are replaced by missives on achieving happiness and random acts of kindness. Odd!! And even weirder, I like it :).

Greg Wilson said...

Like your namesake, St. Jude Thaddeus, you are a patron of lost causes and desperate situations, and justly deserving of canonization.

I'm not kidding.