Be Not Afraid

Creating a system of care built on love, not fear

by Antony Sheehan
Lizy Heard

I coughed for three weeks straight. I remember enough from my nursing training to know that was not a good sign.

Finally, my officemate at the Church Health Center, Dr. Scott Morris, had enough of my hacking. Who can blame him? He practically picked me up by my shirt collar and marched me over to the clinic for a chest x-ray.

In that moment, even though the odds of something serious were unlikely, fear flushed through me. What if something really was wrong?

Happily, nothing showed on the x-ray, and eventually the chronic cough broke up. But that moment of “What if?” reminded me of the level of fear that characterizes much of our experience of health care. Illness—or even the possibility of illness—often comes with a dressing of fear.

We all understand what it is to feel afraid, and we don’t like it. In this we can relate to the rest of humanity. When we’re sick, we want to see a doctor sooner rather than later so we’ll heal more quickly.

“If I wait a moment longer the cancer cells will replicate.” That kind of fear rattles around in our heads even when a diagnosis of disease is unlikely.

Then, sometimes we layer more fear on top of that. “Let’s do some tests,” the doctor might say, and our imaginations go to the worst. The doctor doesn’t always explain that most likely the test will simply rule out an obscure possibility, so in the meantime fear takes root.

We fear disease itself, but often the practical consequences of disease cause immense anxiety as well. Losing time from work. Lost income. Unavailability of transportation for appointments. Even if we have insurance, we fear the high deductible. If we don’t, the question of cost is terrifying and prohibitive.

Let’s face it: these piled-on fears often keep people with symptoms more severe than my persistent cough from seeking care. They try ignoring the symptoms or bearing up under them. They explain their symptoms away; “It’s not so bad.” They try home remedies that somebody’s husband’s cousin suggested. By the time they turn up in the doctor’s office or the emergency room, they are far sicker than necessary—and far more terrified both about the disease and its cost.

Yet this is how the system works.

“Be not afraid,” the Bible tells us hundreds of times. Hundreds. It’s inhumane not to think about how we could take fear out of the health care system.

Whether a system like the UK’s National Health Service, where I worked for many years, is better or worse than a US system doesn’t concern me on a daily basis. Whether a system of care delivers an extra one year of life is not the question. Even who pays for care doesn’t nag me on a day-to-day basis.

What is on my mind and heart as I wake and sleep is that people live every day in fear.

So how do we design a system of care that takes away fear? Memphis, where I live, has smart people, relatively well-resourced people, people devoted to working with the poor. We’ve got all the parts. So do other cities. We need to figure this out from a point of humanity and morality.

How people of faith understand health and our responsibility to each other is a spiritual question. May it seep deep into our hearts and make us dissatisfied with a system that provokes fear.

Then, may we do the work of taking the message of “Be not afraid” to God’s world.

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