Politicians should wake up and help sick constituents

November 10, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

TERRY DEEM is hurrying as fast as he can, and wishes the politicians would do the same. Yesterday morning in Towson, he was rushing to one of his doctors and hoping the afternoon mail would bring word from the politicians. The word from the doctors is already pretty terrible.

Deem moves through his days in a kind of ferocious slow motion. At 42, he suffers from AIDS and a related cancer in his leg and foot. Once 170 pounds, he's dropped below 130. There are lesions on his back and both arms, and his dysfunctional epiglottis makes eating and drinking difficult. He has chronic fatigue and sporadic confusion. Sunday, he was coughing all night long, and this time there was blood coming up.

"A very frightening night," Deem said yesterday, "and they don't know what's causing it."

His voice was weak. When his condition was diagnosed, the doctors gave him two years to live. That was 15 years ago. "And then I didn't go," Deem says, smiling wryly.

But it's getting rougher. Yesterday, the doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital was waiting to check his sputum, to search for reasons for the blood coming up with the coughing. A companion of 18 years, who teaches at Towson University, had to drive Deem to the hospital. As he dressed himself, the conversation turned to earthly salvation. The medical help is steady, but limited by time and insight. The political help is pathetic.

A few weeks ago, Deem wrote about this in a letter carried on this newspaper's editorial page. In part, he wrote:

"I receive $837 a month in Social Security Disability Income benefits. That has been determined to be too much money to qualify for pharmaceutical assistance or food stamps, so I cannot get the medications I need or food assistance.

"I have spent two years trying to work through the bureaucracy of the state of Maryland and the federal government. Could you live on $837 a month, even without health problems? Why has our government spent $45 million on the presidential 'crisis,' and I can't even get the basic necessities of life?"

The part about the presidential "crisis" hit a nerve. The Republicans took a bath at the polls last week, and Newt Gingrich prepares now to skulk away. The march toward presidential impeachment has stumbled.

But questions about priorities remain when a government prosecutor can spend untapped millions on a sex investigation while the nation's sick, having handed over taxes and medical payments all their lives, now go begging for help.

"I hope a very large segment of Congress is voted out of office this November," said Deem's letter to the editor, which ran Oct. 27, a week before Election Day. "It is the overwhelming will of the people to drop this embarrassing debacle and start running the country as it should be run. That includes adequate health care for all. Where are the priorities in Congress?"

When the letter ran, I called Deem at his apartment in Towson. He'd moved to a first-floor unit because he couldn't walk steps any longer. He'd worked in the hotel business for years, then worked at the national headquarters for multiple sclerosis, and then worked in insurance. Though no longer able to work, he was still doing two hours of volunteer work each week at Meals on Wheels, "trying to help those even worse off than me."

A month earlier, he said, he'd sent copies of the letter to three politicians -- U.S. Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski and U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. He wanted them to know about his medical condition, and his inability to break through government health bureaucracies, and he also wanted them to think about the great contrast of money spent for a sex investigation whose funding might better comfort the sick and dying.

"Like right now," Deem said yesterday. "I got my monthly disability check for $837, and I immediately paid my outstanding bills. I had $1.02 left."

"And the letters?" he was asked.

"I'm still waiting," he said. "With the election campaigns, I guess they had more important things to deal with."

In fact, things being how they are, it's unlikely any of the three politicians themselves have seen Deem's letter. They have staff for such matters. But maybe the politicians should look at their staffers.

Deem has never gotten a response from Sarbanes' or Mikulski's offices. He did receive a response from Ehrlich's -- a six-page form letter "explaining why it was so important to prosecute the president," Deem says. "Not a word about my sickness. Not a word about my not having enough money for drugs or food. Just this long rant about going after Clinton."

Yesterday, Deem finished dressing himself and prepared to see one of five doctors on his regular agenda.

"I'm starting to deteriorate more," he said. "I know it. My future is limited, so I just go day to day."

But he imagined the days might be made a little easier than this -- with a government showing more compassion, and politicians who seemed to be paying attention.

Pub Date: 11/10/98

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