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Senator Kamala Harris on Health, Healthcare and Family

MSNBC, Morning Joe

 “I’m Kamala Harris. I’m running for President of the United States. I fully intend to win this election, I really do. We believe in an America where women will always have access to reproductive health.” These words and many more from Kamala Harris, the United States Senator from California, greeted the medical journalism team from MSNBC, Morning Joe on this past Independence Day. By the time I left Iowa a day later, I was convinced Kamala Harris has all the traits of a superb leader as well as a kind and caring person. I knew that if she had chosen medical school rather than law school she would have been a safe, quality and compassionate physician.

Everyone was riding the wave of giddy excitement about her prospects for the 2020 presidential election. She was fresh from the first Democratic Debate in Miami in which where she thumped Vice-President Biden regarding his actions in the past with school busing and his relationships with politicians favoring segregation. Her own experience with school desegregation caught the media by storm and put Biden on his heels. She spoke of a young student that was bused to school. “And that little girl was me,” she said to Biden. And Senator Harris wasn’t selective or shy in taking on her competitors in that first debate. She schooled the entire presidential candidate panel by engaging the rancor as she said, “America does not want to witness a food fight.”

Time has a way of healing wounds, even between seasoned politicians. Two professional colleagues such as Biden and Harris know this well. Those with a child, friend or spouse know that time has a way of leveling out the peaks and valleys of relationships. All Americans can be pleased with the strength of character on full display by Vice-President Biden and Senator Harris after their kerfuffle. Maintaining respect for decorum is a hallmark of professionalism and ethics.

And it’s not just in the halls of Congress, or the hundreds of campaign trail events that prove Senator Harris’s character. Like many in America, she has a close-knit group of friends and family that live life through food. And it’s all about the kitchen. Prepping, cooking and eating creates the ambience of thriving family life in the kitchen, the center of activity of most American homes. Her husband Doug Emhoff, her sister and brother-in-law and a group of close friends pitched in to help prepare the first-ever Kamala Harris Cooking Show. And our team from Morning Joe was in Iowa to capture the moment forever on film. Everyone chimed in with heart-warming stories about Kamala as a youngster and even more stories about the senator once she was ‘all grown-up’. Once our time with the friends and family ended, we all felt a bond of friendship that will last far beyond the presidential election. It is these human bonds that make life such a joy.

“You are a hard worker and hard workers run the risk of burnout,” I said to Senator Harris as we got started in our sit-down interview. She nodded in affirmation. We were surrounded by the warmth of her family as well as the soothing view of a cool and clear stream meandering through the forest behind the house. The densely-wooded acreage was a beautiful mixture of green and brown hues, made even more lush by recent rain. I went on to ask, “How important to you is the balance between hard work and success with burnout and fatigue?”

“Very,” she replied. “My entire childhood was pretty much spent in the kitchen with these incredible cooks.” She was speaking of her mother and all the friends and family that lived to prepare meals for others.  “I would just sit there and smell everything. I would watch and then became an apprentice without knowing what the word apprentice meant. And I love to cook”.

 We spoke of the references to work in her memoir in which she wrote:

Our mother loved to talk with her hands, and she was always using her hands-to cook, to clean, to comfort. She was always busy. Work itself was something of value-hard work especially; and she made sure that we, her daughters, internalized that message and the importance of working with purpose…She also showed us, in so many ways, how much she valued all work, not just her own…She saw the dignity in the work that society requires to function. She believed that everyone deserves respect for the work they do, and that hard effort should be rewarded and honored.

I asked Senator Harris with her close friends and husband Doug listening in to tell me the importance of family to her?  “Family means everything to me,” she said.  “Truly. It is about the people you love”. She looked across the room at her loved ones gathered for the Fourth of July festivities and the entire room lit up. Doug was smiling, and her friends were grinning ear-to-ear. Senator Harris’s entire face brightened into a smile that left no doubt about the depth of feelings she had for all of them. Even our team from Morning Joe, me included, caught the infectious warmth of this close-knit group of friends and family and broke out with broad smiles of our own. It was a truly heart-warming scene. I knew at that moment the capacity Kamala had for genuine love. We could see it and feel it in that room, so far from home. Without even saying it, we knew she was also speaking about the children and family members that were not in Iowa, off doing their own thing, enjoying the company of others in other states on the Fourth of July holiday, but close to the heart of Kamala and Doug. While Iowa is a long way from California, matters of the heart feel no distance.

As if with a nod to her mother Shyamala, who had passed away from cancer some years ago, she said, “It is about the people you take care of. It’s about the people with whom you laugh, and you cry.” She finished the sentence while fixing her gaze on the family members sitting close by, “It’s the people who are on the journey with you.”

After a moment of somber reflection for all those loved ones that have passed away during my sixty years on earth, I got back on track with the issue of burnout again, remembering I was in Iowa to learn about Senator Harris, not to reminisce about my own family and friends and asked, “How do you find the balance while working a lot, between burnout and good mental fitness?”

“For me, working out in the morning is about physical health and mental health,” Senator Harris said.  “It’s that time to just kind of wake up. But also, to just get the adrenaline going, (as she pumped her arms in mock exercise). And sleep is important… Adults should get the appropriate amount of sleep, so we can perform and make good decisions.” She finished, “There has to be that balance struck.”

We all wanted to keep learning more about Senator Harris’s health and that of her family. It was a magical moment in that quaint sitting room and well-appointed kitchen in the heartland of America.  As a physician, I wanted to know how personal health will influence and shape her decisions for all Americans. I was seeing with my own eyes what her family and friends already knew. Kamala Harris has a heart of gold.

“Let’s talk about your vision of healthcare for America,” I said.

“Let’s not talk about the fiction that we are not supplying healthcare to everyone,” she responded. “Because we are, in the emergency room. The not uncommon story about any parent whose child has a temperature that is out of control in the middle of the night and they call 911 or they call their pediatrician. What am I going to do? (The pediatrician says) go to the emergency room.”

“Which is the right thing to say,” I chimed in.

“Which is the right thing to say,” Senator Harris reiterated. “But here’s the thing. They are going knowing that if they walk through those sliding glass doors, they will be out of pocket five thousand dollars. They have insurance, but the deductible is such that it could bankrupt that family. That is not an adequate health care system in America. That’s why I propose that we have as our goal Medicare-for-All.”

In our many conversations that Fourth of July, both on and off camera, Senator Harris proved to be well-informed on issues relevant to the United States. As a father with a large family of my own, I was comforted to learn that her experience as a public servant, working to ensure safety in American society, would serve all of us well from the White House. I sensed her kindness, good-spirited nature, warmth and compassion. Senator Kamala Harris is genuine and authentic.  She brought a freshness to the room, just as she does to the field of competitors for the office of the presidency. I knew I was in the presence of someone who would have been a wonderful physician or nurse, if she had only chosen that career path.

She spoke of an enlightened approach to improving access to healthcare for those struggling with addiction, depression, anxiety, risk of suicide and other manifestations of mental illness. Her plans for healthcare are ever more relevant with suicide increasingly becoming a major cause of death for teens and young adults.  She told me of solutions she would bring to the presidency, to help right the wrongs of social inequities which increase risk of premature death, physical disabilities and mental health disorders. I had to pinch myself a few times during the interview to remind myself that even though Kamala Harris was speaking and acting like a medical colleague of mine, I was in fact having a conversation with a United States Senator in the running to become President of the United States of America.

But alas, medical school was not in the cards for Kamala as a young, vibrant, hard-working student. She told me her motivations as a child, besides the most important of which being her mother’s influences, were many of the champions of the United States legal community such as Thurgood Marshall, the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and its first African-American justice. In her memoir, The Truths We Hold, Harris wrote:

On July 4, 1992, one of my heroes and inspirations, Thurgood Marshall, gave a speech that deeply resonates today. “We cannot play ostrich,” he said. “Democracy just cannot flourish amid fear. Liberty cannot bloom amid hate. Justice cannot take root amid rage. America must get to work…We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred, and the mistrust.

Kamala Harris was drawn to public service by way of law school, then San Francisco District Attorney, Attorney General of California, and now United States Senator from California. She and her younger sister Maya were raised by their mother, a scientific-researcher dedicated to finding treatments to ease the burden of those afflicted by cancer. Of all those who motivated Senator Harris in her life’s-journey to seeking the presidency, it was far-and-away her mother who developed Kamala’s passion for supporting those disenfranchised from society and those afflicted by diseases and social inequities. I have interacted with thousands of fellow physicians since my first day of medical school in 1981. During the last thirty-eight years I have learned a thing or two about the character traits that make for a good doctor. If a young Kamala had made only a slight turn in her life’s pathway, she would have been a fine physician today.

Senator Harris is a champion for erasing social inequities which can lead to poor health, shortened life-span and lessened quality of life. She is on a mission to bring healthcare to all Americans. She is especially sensitive to those suffering from mental health problems and to the rights of women to make reproductive health decisions for themselves. I learned of her passion for righting the wrongs of those underserved by healthcare in our society. She spoke of giving a fair chance for healthcare to the LGBTQ community, non-whites, women, children, those struggling with obesity and many more. She recognized the need to help those overweight with better nutritional choices and professional weight-management guidance. She has plans to improve access to primary care and mental health services for all people. Senator Harris is passionate about raising the bar for the education of children to reverse the cycle of trauma, poverty and truancy that degrades public health and public safety. She recognizes and will continue to take efforts to keep kids in school, feed them nutritiously, and graduate them to be more prosperous and fulfilled as adults.

Senator Harris brings compassion to her support for those living in the United States without affordable, accessible healthcare. She has gathered a lifetime of experience which will enable her efforts to improve the lives of those most disadvantaged. She is an advocate for a system of healthcare that is readily available to all in the United States. She stands by her belief that Medicare-for-All will work in the United States. She has an inclusive vision for healthcare in this country. The compassion etched into her soul while caring for a sick and dying mother resonates in her universal healthcare beliefs.

She spoke of the colon cancer that took her mother’s life even with Medicare-enabled, affordable and advanced healthcare. Colo-rectal cancer alone affects almost five percent of the population of the United States. Without the support of Medicare and the many close friends who pitched in, Kamala and her sister Maya would have struggled to maintain quality care for their mother, Shyamala.

Kamala describes how she felt the pain of “anticipated grief” even before her mother’s death. She felt the emotion of being powerless, an emotion foreign to her professional life. The grief experienced before and after her mother’s death continues to have a lasting effect on Kamala’s approach to healthcare for the millions of Americans shut out of the system. Her health and healthcare experiences reflect a strong desire to help not just the uninsured but those with health insurance that cannot afford the premiums, co-pays, deductibles and hidden or surprise charges. She is committed to helping those who must choose between necessary medications, doctor visits or surgery and paying the weekly living expenses such as food and rent.

I left Iowa with what I came for, an understanding of Kamala Harris as a person. I came to understand how she will use her experiences in life to help others improve their own quality-of-life. As to her health, she is fit as a fiddle, exercises regularly, doesn’t smoke, barely drinks, eats nutritiously, knows the value of a good night’s sleep and how to prevent burnout. The lessons learned in Senator Harris’s rich life have prepared her for the responsibilities that will come with being the President of the United States. I am convinced she will be a good shepherd of health and healthcare for all those fortunate to be living in this country.  I came away with a growing optimism for our country. As I travel the United States learning about each candidate, my sense of American leadership in the future is bright.

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