Editor’s Note: Adam Kassam is a Toronto-based physician who writes about health care, public policy and international affairs. Follow him @AdamKassamMD. Ben Eschenheimer (@BenEschenheimer) is a Boston-based physician and a Masters of Public Health candidate at Harvard University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely their own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Bernie Sanders’ recent heart attack, and his announcement Tuesday that he would be changing ” the nature of the campaign a bit,” would be the October surprise for the Democratic party – except that it happened a year too early.
But Sanders’ health scare may still upend what has already been a volatile primary season.
Indeed, commentators and strategists have already begun their dissection, on the merits, of whether Sanders should continue his campaign. But what gets lost in their noise is the essential humanity that comes with experiencing disease and illness.
Sen. Sanders underwent coronary angioplasty in Las Vegas. It is a fairly common procedure in 2019; tens of thousands of people survive heart attacks and lead productive and meaningful lives.
Still, what befell Sanders, 78, is not to be taken lightly. Questions about his readiness for office will dog his campaign when it resumes.
The more important question, however, is whether our society should have expectations of pristine health for any leader.
What is crystal clear is that one’s health should never be used as a disqualifier for making a significant contribution to society. Therefore, the suggestion that Sanders should stand down and endorse another candidate because of a health condition that many Americans live and work with is not only callous, but carries a bitter flavor of discrimination.
Indeed it scans as ableism, a shameful undercurrent that has pervaded discussions of the 2020 election, along with ageism.
Such tactics have been perfected by President Donald Trump in recent years. He has not only attacked his political rivals by deriding their energy level, background and appearance, but he mocked a journalist with a physical disability. If the Democratic Party, and the political establishment at large, is so quick to dismiss Sanders due to illness, it will inadvertently weaponize disease in a way that President Trump and others will be only too happy to leverage.
The fact is, this expectation of immaculate health for our political leadership is unrealistic and naïve – an American obsession reflected in presidents’ long history of sanitizing their medical conditions. For example, John F. Kennedy’s treatment for Addison’s disease, a potentially debilitating illness, was hushed up but did not materially affect his presidency in any way. Franklin D. Roosevelt took pains to disguise his paralysis, which nonetheless became an inspiration to differently-abled people.
Taken in a contemporary context, the discussions about physical fitness for office gather primarily around the issue of age. It is therefore important to highlight that, given significant advancements in medical technology, people today are living longer. Indeed, communities everywhere are quickly learning to adapt to the new reality: an aging population, often bringing with it disability and chronic disease, but not necessarily the diminishing ability to contribute to society.
It’s also important to be mindful of the dangerous erosion of compassion and empathy within society that has entered our political discourse. This has the potential to infect the way in which we perceive, discuss and approach illness.
By creating a culture in which sickness is seen as weakness or unworthiness, we will perpetuate a paradigm of marginalization. This can already be found across the country and around the world. We cannot allow this, because there is more at stake than simply next year’s election.
As physicians, one of our most important roles is that of the patient advocate. Our responsibility as health care providers is to ensure that those whose voices have been stifled or suppressed are represented and amplified. But not only do we have a duty to advocate for our individual patients, we must also advocate for the health of our society. This includes identifying discrimination, naming and defining it so that we can ensure that our communities are inoculated against this corrosive attitude.
Sen. Sanders’ illness will shine a spotlight on how the political establishment approaches the universality of disease. In a hyper-polarized environment, it’s not hard to imagine that partisan rhetoric will eventually monopolize the analysis of what Sanders’ heart disease means for 2020. As a society, we should resist the temptation to judge how this series of events – along with the advancing age of other candidates – affects electability.
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Instead, we should endeavor to use this moment as an opportunity to reflect on our common humanity. We should focus on how the very fact that all of us experience illness should become unifying instead of dividing. Ultimately, we should challenge ourselves to have a broader discussion about health while actively creating an environment of tolerance, acceptance and inclusion.