My friend is the grandson of the first woman medical doctor in Tulsa. He tells me stories about her, and about how it never dawned on her to capitalize on the misfortunes of her patients.

Back then, doctors were not in the practice of medicine for the money. They saw their jobs as a public service, dedicated to helping patients without regard to whether they could pay in money or with whatever they could muster: a bag of homegrown potatoes or other produce from their gardens.

My friend tells me of the time in 1986 when the Corps of Engineers announced the Keystone dam floodgates would have to be opened and the entire Riverside Drive area where he lived would be flooded the next day, and the eerie sense of anticipation and foreboding that preceded the flooding. He says, “We knew it was coming. It was bigger than anything. We couldn’t do anything about it. We could only wait.”

Our awareness is naturally piqued when a burst-style event, such as 9/11, takes place. But when the source of the event is steady, silent and invisible such as a global pandemic, our brains are not as well-suited to perceiving and attributing things. The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic impact hit me when I walked into a store and found empty shelves, where other folks had voted their concern by buying up all the toilet paper. It validated my uneasy watchfulness about a potential tsunami that seems to be coming. I modified my routine from business as usual to take extra precautions and do my part in quelling the transmission.

Author and geography professor Jared Diamond, in his book "Upheaval" last year, postulated that individuals learn from crisis, but governments rarely do. Oklahoma Policy Institute points out Oklahomans can transfer some of their learning by submitting public comments on Oklahoma’s health care plan. In Oklahoma, State Question 802 has been simmering since January, waiting to be to be served up to voters on the ballot. The state government in OKC will hopefully soon put the question to voters to decide about extending Medicaid to some 200,000 more Oklahomans. Think of that as protection not just to those people, but also as a firewall to everyone with whom they come in contact.

Newspaper editorialist James Neal in the Enid News & Eagle this week makes the point that “[S]ystemic structures have been built, reshaped and rebuilt to make sure the 'haves' are not negatively impacted, inconvenienced or made uncomfortable by the hunger, oppression, poverty and suffering of the 'have-nots.'” Neal could well have been describing the driver of social Darwinism and natural selection: Wealthy people can isolate themselves from pandemic by hiring a personal shopper. Germy hordes comprising about 40 percent of Americans nationwide are so thinly-capitalized that they must choose between staying home sick or becoming homeless. A small elite can buffer themselves to weather a pandemic of long duration, with a well-stocked pantry and health care, job security and a safety net.

This week at a restaurant salad buffet, I had to angle up real close to the sneeze guard because I have little short Cherokee woman arms, making it hard to reach the olives. I have both Indian Health Service and Obamacare, but for which I would be like the defendants who come to court – families stressed by medical debt who cannot afford bankruptcy, without any health care, despite pandemic and chronic illnesses such as heart disease, COPD and diabetes.

Empathy is human nature. When we care for the least of our brothers, everyone benefits vicariously from collective decision-making.

Kathy Tibbits is a Cherokee citizen, attorney, and artist living at Lake Tenkiller.

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