Moms and other women, it's time to take care of yourselves, for no one else will


TODAY IS Mother's Day, so it's as good a time as any to say it. This is a message for women -- mothers, nonmothers, sisters, wives, daughters. The message is simply this: Stop being so damned selfless.

This message comes in the wake of learning that Bea Gaddy -- the spiritual mother to scores of poor, homeless and hungry Baltimoreans -- has breast cancer. She discovered a lump in her breast some time ago. She didn't see a doctor because she had no health insurance. Gaddy did not cry out for help. She probably wouldn't have dreamed of it. For her, helping others came first.

Does such altruism come to women by nature, or is it culturally ingrained? My dad is lying in a Baltimore hospital recovering from surgery. My mom -- although they haven't been together in years -- said a prayer for him. This is the same woman who would never dream of asking God for anything for herself. Mind you, she has her own health problems to worry about. And in my book, God owes my mom a couple of requests. In fact, God owes her a couple of dozen.

A year ago, my brother Mike and I were at our sister Carolyn's house on the Eastern Shore. She grilled us with an older sister's third degree.

"Are you seeing your doctors?"

"Yes, Carolyn."

"Are you taking your diabetes medication, Gregory?"

"Yes, Carolyn. By the way, when are you going to give up those cigarettes?"

Carolyn was dead less than 24 hours after that conversation, the victim of a massive heart attack. She went to her grave worried more about the health of her younger brothers than her own.

So, ladies, please be a little more selfish, particularly when it comes to your own health. This selfless spirit is fine, but you can't help anyone if you're dead. We should all thank Gaddy for going public with her illness. Women, it seems, need constant reminding that their own health is important and that annual checkups are a must.

And the subject of annual checkups brings up another issue -- one that should anger us as much as Gaddy's illness depressed us. Why doesn't the state of Maryland provide health care coverage for the uninsured and underinsured so that they can have the annual checkups for breast cancer, prostate cancer, diabetes and other diseases that can be cured or controlled through early detection?

It is an odd society in which we live. Odd and, sometimes, cruel. If Gaddy had had a car at the time she discovered the lump in her breast and someone had rear-ended it, her car insurance company or the other person's would have paid for the repairs on her car. That's required by the state of Maryland: You must have car insurance. You have no choice. The state penalizes you if you don't.

On matters of health insurance, our kindly state legislators are not so compassionate. They care more about the health of our cars than our bodies. They don't compel employers to extend health care benefits to their workers. If you're a poor kid from the city who works for six bucks an hour, your employer doesn't have to give you health benefits. But if the kid somehow manages to save enough for a used car, he has to get insurance that may cost him $4,000 a year.

Do the math. That would be roughly one-third of the kid's income. And let's call that $4,000 a year what it is -- out-and-out extortion, courtesy of the state legislature. But seeing that the poor and unemployed get health insurance? Hey, it's not like they're cars, right? The sanctity of private property must be maintained.

Some will protest that health insurance is a matter of individual responsibility, that you, not the state, should take care of your own health insurance needs. There may be some validity to that, but the state is hardly consistent about it. It could apply the same philosophy to car insurance and maintain that getting car insurance is a matter of personal responsibility and that those stupid enough not to get it are taking foolish risks. But state lawmakers have chosen to make certain that car insurance companies will always stay in business.

State lawmakers have even given police the right to peek into your car to see if you are wearing a seat belt. Once again, the attitude is totally the opposite of the one they take toward health insurance. If it's none of the state's business if we have adequate health insurance, then it's sure as hell none of the state's business if we buckle up or not.

Oh sure, the state will dole out dollars piecemeal for a free cancer screening program here or free mammograms there, but Maryland is very fickle about when it will butt into the lives of private citizens and when it won't. But as long as it's deciding to butt in, let it butt in and provide some comprehensive health insurance for those who need it most.

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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