On the return drive from a weekend to Virginia Beach where my girlfriend and I attended the wedding of a college friend, we decided to stop by a place I haven’t been to in years: IKEA. For me, entering the blue-and-yellow storefront was like coming home after a long odyssey. There are no IKEA stores near New Orleans (my home for the past 15 years), and yet much of my childhood was spent sitting in IKEA easy chairs, sleeping in IKEA twin beds, eating meals on IKEA tables and IKEA dinnerware, and working under the light of IKEA desk lamps. A part of me died when my dad finally decided to throw out much of our old IKEA furniture when we moved from our dark, ratty, mold-infested Gentilly apartment to a third floor St. Charles apartment surrounded by French windows and Uptown’s charming oak canopy. Although our new (Scandinavian) furniture were of much higher quality and aesthetic appeal, I had not grown up in them, and they shared no memories with me of afternoons naps, evenings curled up with a favorite book, or even the process of extricating myself from their dubious comfort when hearing my mom call out dinner time. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy exploring new qualities I hadn’t been exposed to before (like being able to get up from one’s mattress without a sore back), but a part of me would not have sought change had it not been forced upon us. My mom had passed, we were moving up socially and financially, and my dad crystallized his hopes of finally achieving financial freedom after having spent decades seeking political freedom.
For this trip to IKEA, I set a spending limit: I wanted to replace much of my belongings in my apartment in New Orleans and also make small improvements to my living environment (matching/brighter colors, more decorations, and more space-efficient work and entertainment spaces). Most of my belongings in my apartment were salvaged from the hasty departure of my parents to Florida last fall: old plates, cheap/chipped 20-year-old IKEA tables, improvised furniture, etc. Some of the plates still bear stains from their days of lonely disuse during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. My bed is two stacked mattresses. My couch is a mattress with a comforter draped over some boxes behind it as an improvised backing. My dresser is a beat-up locker trunk. The rug on the floor was once a throw with cheap CVS rubber placemats beneath it to (tenuously) hold it in place. Although we’re still recovering from post-Katrina financial chaos and my brother’s and my educational loans make it difficult to justify saving any money, I can still do better than this. My fellowship at the NIH surprisingly pays a decent stipend (surprising only in that Harvard College, in its ever apparent stinginess, provided little funding for living expenses of students of the sciences). And so, we went to IKEA with a mission to make small improvements on my way of life (at an affordable price). Half a dozen glasses for two dollars? Nice six-person dinnerware set for $25? Score! I admittedly enjoy shopping (my family’s previous weekend activity being trips to the mall), and I also enjoy exploring and having new ways of enjoying life: drinking coffee and tea; having spices to cook with (having previously only had salt); trying new wines, sakes, and beers; and more. And while I’m still caught between financial pressures, my recent transition from cheap college student to semi-independent professional student, my desire to live better and my vivid memories of living with fewer means, I was quietly reminded of a difficult truth by the pleasant IKEA checkout clerk. Tired but cheerful, she commented on one of the great deals I found at the IKEA summer sale. My girlfriend said, “It would be so dangerous if I worked here. You must shop here all the time!” However, she replied with a sad smile, “I don’t have the time.”
Being able to simply think about improving my way of life is a great luxury that many do not have. It’s not that people don’t want to have better things: many people just don’t have the time or energy to think about it. This is nowhere more apparent than in health care: everyone wants to be healthy, but not everyone has the luxury to think about their health frequently and effectively enough to carry out their doctor’s orders and do their part to progress toward a healthy life. In many ways, the conservative argument against improving health care access being viewed as the end-all to contemporary problems in health care is correct: you can open the doors, but that doesn’t mean people will walk through them. Improving health care access is a vital component of any health care reform, but this must be combined with greater measures taken toward maximizing the positive impact physicians and nurses have on their patients. In other words:
1) The barriers, new and old, that prevent physicians from doing their jobs to the best of their abilities should be removed.
2) We should focus less on simply telling people what to do and more on showing people why these (manageable) changes will help them. People may give up hope of living the length and quality of life that doctors would like them to aim for because of the seeming futility and small doses of despair that come with living life, but that does not mean that we should give up on inspiring them to do better.
I have always believed that people are generally more capable than what they believe they are capable of, and I am committed to helping people see that when I practice medicine.