The hang-tough syndrome

March 21, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- It's barely a week since Bill Clinton took that ill-fated trip down Greg Norman's steps. But the post-op president has already gone off to Helsinki with his brace, his wheelchair and his crutches, thus adding jet lag to a list of symptoms long enough to turn any commander-in-chief into an unhappy camper.

The only good that will come from wheeling the leader of the Western world up to this summit is that it will make Bypass Boris look positively hale.

For the rest of us, it's bad news. Ever since Bill ripped his tendon and felt his pain, he has become a poster boy for the great American medical pastime: toughing it out. The man who's so often scorned as ''soft'' has turned into a case study for the burgeoning Annals of Macho Medicine.

Day One: After the man went bump in the night, we were told that Mr. Clinton was joking with the doctors and requesting Lyle Lovett tapes in the O.R.

Day Two: We were told that the president had been awake throughout surgery. How alert? So alert that he asked for a book to read. He didn't get one.

Day Three: We were informed by a pleased-as-punch group of doctors that their patient was so tough that, for the good of the country, he eschewed the usual narcotics in favor of mental clarity and lesser pain control.

A weighty problem

Day Four: He was back at work while his doctors joked about how hard it will be to keep a good man -- and his weight -- down.

This sort of bravado in the face of injury, has become the standard pre-operating procedure ever since Ronald Reagan asked his doctors if they were Republicans.

Presidential hang-tough syndrome is supposed to make the public feel reassured that the country is in strong hands.

Well, maybe it is comforting to know that even in the O.R., while the surgeons were working on his knee, our president's mind and hands were so clear he could push that little red button. Or maybe it's malarkey.

Now this is probably a, uh, sore point with me. Some weeks ago, after a column that was nothing but a desperate pre-op ploy for sympathy for my knee surgery, I received all manner of e-mail promises that I would be up and running in no time. Well, I am up. And walking. In some time.

It is only now that I keep running, or rather walking, into the people who inform me -- a bit sheepishly -- that their recovery was an itsy-bit slower than predicted. They would still rather rappel than climb the stairs. And yes, their most sensual personal relationship is with their ice pack.

It's not just in the White House that ill health has become an admission of physical or moral weakness. Macho medicine is a national specialty.

Consider the way Americans are undermedicated and undermedicating themselves for pain. In a piece in U.S. News & World Report, Steven Hyman, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, says, ''We are pharmacological Calvinists.''

Political gain

Only in this era is it considered a virtue for the president to say ''no'' to prescription drugs and for the drug czar to say ''no'' to medical marijuana. No pain, no political gain.

As for macha medicine? Not that long ago, natural childbirth was regarded in the same category as a natural appendectomy. Now, if childbirth doesn't come naturally, mothers often regard themselves as failures.

We now have moral excuses for drive-thru maternity and even drive-thru mastectomies. The up-and-out patient has become the health-care hero in a health-care system that only admits people to a hospital on a conveyor belt.

Meanwhile on television, the macho medicine-makers produce ads in which the purpose of cold and flu tablets is to get us back to the office -- where we can spread the cold and flu. The office itself that now boasts an updated corporate philosophy of medicine: Only wimps take sick days.

If the president wants to comfort the nation, how about showing that it's OK to take it easy. The fiber of the country won't fall apart while the presidential tendon is healing.

Mr. President: Take it like a man. Take it lying down.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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