The Measure of a Man

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
—Martin Luther King Jr, 1929–1968

Editor-in-Chief, Chester ‘Trip’ Buckenmaier III, MD, COL, MC, USA.

A popular news story in the closing months of 2010 concerned the engine room fire and stranding of 3,300 passengers on board the Carnival Splendor off the Pacific coast of Mexico. The news media buzzed with information concerning the drifting cruise ship with vacationers having to contend with nonfunctioning toilets, no air conditioning, electricity, or phones, and the culinary indignity of being offered Spam® to eat.

At one point, as I watched the drama being played out in the nightly news I heard the passengers described as being in “survival mode.” I believe I laughed out loud. Certainly I am not insensitive to the plight of those vacationers and cruise ship staff whose lives had been dealt a particularly bad set of circumstances. “Survival mode” though? Hardly. No one was killed or injured, no one was cold or hungry, and the ship was not sinking. The passengers on the Titanic were in “survival mode.”

The media hype detailing this event of mass inconvenience got me thinking about the people federal medicine serves. I euphemistically imagined veteran servicemembers and families on the Carnival Splendor not realizing their vacation had ended in the hours following the stranding of the ship. I believe the average military family’s gauge for measuring hardship employs a more rigorous scale than most others in our society.

In my years of caring for veterans and their families, I have heard some truly harrowing stories of hardship. Our patients know the family-destroying pain of months of separation. They can describe the taste of congealed “spaghetti with meat sauce” from a MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat) eaten under a poncho in the rain and mud of a foreign country. They know the feel of 120 °F in the shade with no air conditioning for miles. Many understand the gut wrenching stress accompanying the need to continue with the mission despite enemy fire and the overwhelming desire to go into “survival mode.” Too many know the horrors of war and the pain of wounds to both the body and mind. Our patients and families routinely tend to the health, safety, and comfort of the country before they do the same for themselves.

I feel truly blessed to serve this special population as a federal medicine provider. I take pride in my patients, what they represent, their values, and in many cases their incredible sacrifice. I am honored that my family and I can count ourselves as one among them and that we can relate to their careers of service. I believe working with and having the opportunity to listen to the fascinating stories of federal medicine patients is one of the greatest perks of my career that few, if any, other professions could offer. I make it a point on rounds with my team to conclude a visit with a wounded veteran patient by stating, “It’s an honor to care for you.”

As we begin a new year of federal medicine in 2011, I think it is appropriate and important to reaffirm the advantages we, as federal medicine providers, have because of our exceptional patient population. Our veterans and families routinely stand in times of challenge and controversy with unflappable courage and devotion to duty when our country calls. I find my patients often inspire and enthrall me. They certainly have enhanced my life with purpose, honor, and meaning. For all these things I remain steadfastly grateful for my patients and because of them, possibly wiser than the news media on the meaning of “hardship and sacrifice.”

I heartily recommend my colleagues in federal medicine take time to listen to our patients’ service stories. I often find time invested in listening to our patients is far more informative and rewarding then time spent with the nightly news. Unlike the people portrayed in the news, I almost always know the measure of my patients and where they stand.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of U.S. Medicine, Marathon Medical Communications, Inc. or the United States government and its agencies.

U.S. Medicine welcomes comments from its readers. Address correspondence to [email protected]

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