Monday, October 7, 2013


My mother, Elsie Weathers (left), and her friend Phyllis McGuire at Biggs Hospital c. 1943.

I believe the U.S. government should cover the health expenses of every American citizen. Some call this “Medicare for everyone.” Some call it a “single-payer system,” the single payer being the federal government. Some call it the European or Canadian system. Some call it “socialized medicine,” thinking that term is pejorative, although I find it neither pejorative nor accurate. (Most of those who throw around the word “socialist” have no idea what it means.)

Whatever you call it, I believe that if a person gets sick, he or she should be able to go to a doctor or a hospital, receive treatment and medicine, and have to pay nothing.

The Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare, is not what I would prefer; it still leaves people vulnerable to large medical costs. It is nevertheless better than the system we have had until now. Obamacare is, of course, much in the news today, but it is not my subject here.

My subject is universal, free health care. I believe it should be the law of the land in any country that, like ours, can afford it. My stake in this is personal: Without free, government-sponsored health care, I would never have been born.

My father, Terry Weathers (left), and his friend Ed Miller at Biggs Memorial Hospital c. 1939

Sometime around 1940, my mother, then in her early twenties, a girl from a hardscrabble upstate New York farm, contracted tuberculosis. Shortly before that, my father, almost as young, a boy from a small town in Kentucky, had contracted tuberculosis while working in New York City. They did not know each other when they got sick. They met after they had both been admitted to Biggs Memorial Hospital, a tuberculosis sanatorium overlooking Cayuga Lake, near Ithaca, New York.

For nearly four years, my mother was in the hospital, taking the “rest cure.” In fact, she had little rest, enduring operation after agonizing operation. Periodically, long needles were inserted into her lung cavity, through her back. The last operation she had resulted in her right lung being shut down forever. My father, too, went under the knife, though not quite so drastically. He was in the hospital for about three years.

My father and mother fell in love in the hospital and married after they were finally released, in 1945. I was born in 1946. I was an “accident” that was a bit dangerous for my still-weak mother, but we both came out of it okay.

Without socialized medicine, this scene would never have occurred. That's my father, my mother, and me in the middle.

My father lived to be 84. My mother lived to be 93. I never saw either of my parents in a bathing suit; they were too embarrassed by the scars on their backs. And yet, until the day they died, they spoke of their time at Biggs Memorial in—surprise—the most affectionate, almost reverent terms. They spoke of the kind and beautiful nurses (and, yes, of the occasional sadistic nurse) and of the warm, caring, and competent doctors (and, yes, of the occasional cold-hearted doctor). Most of all, they spoke of the fellowship of the sick who made up the patient population. Friends they loved died in that hospital, and they were some of the dearest friends my parents ever had. Those who lived remained their dear friends for years after.

For my parents, their time at Biggs was a time of prolonged physical pain made bearable by the balm of human kindness.

Now to the point: For more than three years of hospital care, innumerable operations, and hundreds of medications, my mother paid exactly nothing. Not a dime. Nor did my father ever pay a cent for his care at Biggs. New York State paid for it all, on the assumption that tuberculosis was societally too dangerous to be left untreated and its victims too contagious to remain in the general population. The taxpayers of New York paid for my parents’ care.

That’s why my parents became lifelong supporters of universal, free health care—go ahead, call it socialized medicine—and why I feel the same way today.

Thanks to those years of free medical care, my father and mother went on to live enormously productive, generous lives. I can assure you that New York State earned back all the money it invested in their care—and much, much more.

Whenever one of my conservative friends complains about “socialized medicine,” I tell them this story. It doesn’t shut them up, but it should.

Paul Robeson was a great athlete, actor, singer, and early civil-rights activist. In November 1942, he gave a free concert at Biggs Memorial Hospital, where my father took this photo. During the communist witch-hunt of Senator Joseph McCarthy, Robeson was blacklisted because of his political activism. My parents never forgot his performance at Biggs and always spoke of him with reverence. They despised McCarthy and his kind of right-wing politics for all of their lives.


  1. Ed
    I had no idea that your family story was so compelling. I can see why my parents had such deep respect and love for your parents.

    Peter Slansky

    1. Peter,

      Thanks. Glad you enjoyed this piece. I remember your parents with such affection, having been their paper boy for several years. I still remember the evening I delivered papers on foot through hip-deep snow, and they met me at the door with hot chocolate! We were both lucky in our choice of parents.