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Thursday, July 01, 2010

Lead your people, PM: level with them

This is tough to write because a sick man is a sick man, whoever he is. We have been trained by our parents not to kick a man when he is down. We do not make light of illness. We are told not to disregard the impact of illness on a man or woman and their family.

So, this is tough to write, also because in following age-old manners, I might be seen to be breaking another tradition.

That tradition is to go away and curl up in a corner, away from public attention, when we are ill - that your illness is nobody's business but your own. It is a tradition rooted in some hypocrisy; witness the enormous traffic at visiting hours in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, by families, friends, acquaintances, fellow churchgoers, work mates, play mates, even the odd enemy. Serious illness tends to bring out the best in our humanity. I've witnessed, and participated in, the laying on of hands, the soulful touch, the kind and steady eye contact, the soft word, the cheerful smile, the disarming chuckle, as if by our mere presence we seek to heal - or to say goodbye without even betraying the slightest notion of a farewell.

That is our humanity in this part of the world. It becomes all the more striking that in the case of our seriously ill prime minister, the impulse that tends to kindness, from friends, supporters and strangers - and especially from detractors, foes, critics and enemies - is somewhat truncated by this cloak of near-secrecy that envelopes David John Howard Thompson.

I think that while the PM might be getting great medical advice he might not be getting - or taking - the best communication advice. He is the prime minister and the public have a right to know as much as they possibly can, both for his own benefit and for ours. Summoning the media to the issuing of a 15-minute statement of achievements, ended by an "oh, I'm off for two months for more tests" does neither himself, his party nor his country any good. We should continue to pray for his well-being but it is time to stop skirting around this matter. With great respect, sir, take your people into your confidence - or send them an email.

A full, frank disclosure is what we expect from a fellow we once knew or never really knew from a QEH sickbed. And yet, for the sake of the leader of our country, his advisors, supporters and relatives feel inclined to keep it all quiet.

One benefit of dialogue is the usually positive impact that health discussions tend to have on public health - the rest of us. It takes the protracted illness of a loved one, an acquaintance or even a celebrity to bring into sharp focus the disease or condition that afflicts the stricken. In the early 1980s, my first encounter with the word 'polyp' in a meaning other than the coral polyps whose deaths make our coral island possible was when polyps were removed from Ronald Reagan's colon. Indeed, my own knowledge of some forms of cancer should be enough to produce a radio or television show single-handedly based on my parents' own struggles with this wily disease.

And there's that C-word, the Great Unmentionable of old. Happily, more and more Barbadians are coming to mature terms with the disease and its many iterations, no doubt thanks to the work of the Cancer Society and to the simple Law of Averages that results in our knowing more cancer survivors.

Of course, Cancer is the Great Unmentionable in the case of the prime minister simply because it has not been identified as a cause of his illness. We simply do not know and he wants us to believe that he does not either. This is where the psychologists come in, I suppose, to talk about Cognitive Dissonance - the holding of completely contradictory notions in our puny heads. How is it - we ask ourselves silently - that we middle-aged people have seen enough of illness to ask whether our PM has cancer and yet we are being encouraged not to even think about it? What harm is this doing to the rest of us who now have or may yet have to deal with cancer and other serious illnesses and yet have Mr. Thompson's example of how to deal with it?

I believe a great opportunity for helping - and perhaps healing - can happen even now. Yet, the opportunity is being squandered because not even the most speculative article by any leading surgeon or oncologist is being written for our benefit. Not one of the great and good of the medical fraternity is coming on camera or radio to educate us about what the hell to do if you come down with severe stomach pains. Are patients and relatives not encouraged to educate themselves so they can ask educated questions of their doctors?

What is particularly galling about this affair is how another, less desirable aspect of the Barbadian social code is being invoked: when in doubt, make it up and gossip. As one ruling party insider put it, the rumour mill is more active in George Street than in Roebuck Street.

This does zero for the first patient among equals. Doctors often speak of the role that a positive outlook plays on patient outcome. Rough translation: if you are being told - verbally and non-verbally - that you will die, you tend not to live to 100.

So this is a big and tough ask of our leader; after all - as you, dear reader, will no doubt remind me - he is a human being after all. But we cannot ask of our leaders any less than we ask of ourselves, or of Mr So-and-So on Ward X at the QEH.

The people do have a right to know about our leaders' health. We also have a right to know about the medical check-up routines of our leaders generally, and with good reason, death having already robbed us of two sitting prime ministers and three governors general.

Leading 270,000-odd Barbadians - including this one - must doubtless be a source of unspeakable, sickness-inducing stress, but if we put aside our partisan blinders, man-up and woman-up, and remember that we are Barbadians first, we must demand more of our leaders, even when illness gives them fewer resources to give back.

Yet, at the very least there is a teachable moment here, and one that could heal both troubled spirit and ailing body, not the least of which is that of the Prime Minister of Barbados.

And get well, soon.