Empathy is a long climb

Empathy is a long climb January 3, 2013

A year after suffering a major stroke, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., spoke with Natasha Korecki of the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The left side of his face is stiff,” Korecki writes. “His speech is occasionally halting, as though his thoughts are racing ahead of his words.”

Kirk returns to the Senate this week and says his experience has given him a new urgency regarding the needs of stroke victims and others relying on Medicaid. The senator:

[Plans] to take a closer look at funding of the Illinois Medicaid program for those with have no income who suffer a stroke, he said. In general, a person on Medicaid in Illinois would be allowed 11 rehab visits, he said.

Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk climbs the stairs of Chicago’s Willis Tower during a charity event in November. The senator is recovering from a major stroke he suffered in January 2012.

“Had I been limited to that, I would have had no chance to recover like I did,” Kirk said. “So unlike before suffering the stroke, I’m much more focused on Medicaid and what my fellow citizens face.”

Kirk has the same federal health-care coverage available to other federal employees. He has incurred major out-of-pocket expenses, which have affected his savings and retirement, sources familiar with Kirk’s situation said.

It was last January when Kirk was initially hospitalized after a bout of dizziness. He has since endured aggressive rehabilitation, including considerable time on the treadmill, which he calls “the dreadmill.” He still suffers from paralysis on the left side of his body, and he plans to get around some of the time by wheelchair when necessary.

… Physically, he revealed more symptoms; his left arm lay limp at his side. He wore a brace on his left leg. As the interview wore on — his last one of the day — it appeared more laborious for him to speak. He took deep breaths and spoke softly.

Harold Pollack says these are “wise words, sadly earned“:

Kirk required aggressive rehabilitation services at one of America’s finest facilities for patients recovering from stroke. Such a profound physical ordeal – and one’s accompanying sense of profound privilege in securing more help than so many other people routinely receive — this changes a person.

Politicians and policy analysts often speak in the abstract about difficult tradeoffs and the need to trim waste in programs such as Medicaid. I’ve expressed contempt for conservatives who conduct such conversations at such very great personal distance from the people intimately affected by service cuts in essential programs. Of course, we liberals conduct many of these same conversations at the same psychological distance, too.

Caring for my brother-in-law Vincent has certainly changed my perspective. Whatever the issues are, they aren’t about some group of faceless other people anymore.

Vincent, intellectually disabled since birth, has not physically suffered in the way Senator Kirk has. He does face other challenges. Vincent is, officially, a pauper. He swipes his food assistance and his Social Security over to the group home that provides for his daily needs.

This is one way to learn empathy. It’s one way to learn anything — the hard way.

The past year has been a gruelling struggle for Mark Kirk, one I can only imagine because I’ve been fortunate not to have (yet) faced such difficulties. I can only imagine, and so I have to imagine. And to listen. Because imagining and listening are the only ways to learn empathy without learning the hard way.

Steve Benen is hopeful that Sen. Kirk’s hard-won wisdom will help to temper his party’s approach to Medicaid:

Given his party’s desire to cut Medicaid, the senator is likely to bring a critical, first-hand perspective that should help influence the debate. Kirk will be able to offer insights his colleagues need to be aware of.

Perhaps by listening to his story, Kirk’s colleagues will be able to learn what he has learned without having to go through a similar struggle themselves. Benen continues:

I do wish, however, that we might see similarly changed perspectives without the need for direct personal relevance. Many policymakers are skeptical about federal disaster relief until it’s their community that sees devastation. They have no interest in gay rights until they learn someone close to them is gay. And they’re unsure of the value of Medicaid until they see its worth up close.

Rejoice with those who rejoice. Mourn with those who mourn. That’s all that keeps us from having to learn about rejoicing and mourning the hard way.

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