Duncan Cross doesn’t think he’ll live to see the day when a person with a chronic illness is elected president of the United States. His article brings up some very interesting points about prejudice, privacy, and ability to work with an illness. Back before the era of 24 hour a day news, blogging, and no-holds-barred digging for information, it was possible for presidential candidates to hide all sorts of things during campaigns and even during their time in office. But it seems that with each passing election we learn more details about candidates that would once have been considered absolutely private. Medical records are released and scrutinized, and there is no realistic chance of a candidate hiding a medical issue anymore. Even in the private sector, the recent flurry of news reports surrounding Steve Jobs and his medical leave of absence from Apple was met with intense internet debate about the nature of his illness. Much was said about whether he should have to release medical records to the public, since he’s the CEO of a publicly traded company.
But I do think that it’s possible for someone with a chronic illness to be elected president. Obviously it would depend on the nature of the illness. My father’s experience with a chronic illness (Wegener’s granulomatosis which caused kidney failure) is an example of an illness that would likely prevent a person from even thinking of running for president, much less getting elected. He did continue to work as a psychologist for about a year after his diagnosis, but was nauseous all the time, exhausted from dialysis, and functioning at a much reduced level in general. He eventually retired, several years ahead of his planned schedule, because he simply could not continue to work full time. He had never taken a sick day in a career that spanned more than 30 years, but Wegener’s and kidney failure made it impossible for him to work.
Some illnesses are like that. They rob a person of so much that there isn’t enough energy left to devote oneself to a full time job, much less a job as taxing as the president of the United States. But not all chronic illnesses are that severe, and some people continue to function quite well despite illness. If we put chronic disability on the same level with illness, Gov. David Patterson of NY is legally blind. Of course he’s a governor rather than president, and he became governor when Spitzer resigned, rather than being directly elected. But it’s conceivable that he could one day run for president.
Here in Colorado, Jared Polis is the first openly gay representative to be elected to the US house. And that came only 16 years after Colorado voters passed Amendment 2, which basically made it legal to discriminate against gays in Colorado (an embarassing bit of Colorado history, but it did get voter approval in 1992). At that time, it probably seemed highly unlikely that Colorado would have a gay representative in the US House of Representatives by 2009. And yet here we are. Progress does keep rolling along, sometimes more slowly than we would like, sometimes faster than we expect.
Modern medical technology has made it possible for people with all sorts of illnesses to continue to work and be much more productive than they might have been just a generation ago. If one is fortunate enough to have good health insurance (which the president does) and good medical care, there are a host of chronic illnesses that can be controlled enough to allow a dedicated individual to function in the highest office in the land. And a presidential nominee with a chronic illness might very much appeal to voters looking for someone would would make health care reform a priority. The perspective of living with a chronic illness would likely make a president much more sympathetic to the 47 million Americans who have no health insurance and no realistic access to health care.
I’m glad that Duncan Cross put this issue out there for us to read and think about. Ask yourself if you harbor prejudice against people who are chronically ill, and then ask yourself why. If a person can do his or her job, and do it well, why should a chronic illness be the basis for our judgement of that person?
Thanks to the Samurai Radiologist at Not Totally Rad for hosting Grand Rounds, where I found Duncan’s article.
Photo credit: Jenny Moros at Flickr.