Please welcome back New York-based longtime type 1, writer, media strategist and periodic 'Mine correspondent Dan Fleshler, with another take on hot topics in the news...
The health of national leaders has made headlines in this election season, spurred on by presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's brush with pneumonia. So today, Dan explores the demand for "medical transparency" by our world leaders, and the ramifications of rumors relating to health.
Election Shocker: Clinton 'Might' Get Diabetes, by Dan Fleshler
Psst… Did you hear? Hillary Clinton has type 2 diabetes! I read about it. Actually, I read that she “might” have T2D. Or she might get it someday, but that should be enough to convince us she’s not healthy enough to be president, don’t you think? If so, you’ll agree with an “alt-right” pundit named “Streiff,” who’s not a doctor, and whose carefully considered diagnosis in Red State noted:
"As she approaches the BIG SEVEN-ZERO, she is very out of shape. It is a safe bet that her BMI is over 30 — I base that not on having access to her weight but on the dimensions of her posterior and the girth of her ankles — which makes her obese; best casing it, she is at the upper bounds of overweight. With age and obesity comes Type II diabetes and hypertension. Together you have increased risk for heart disease and stroke."
So we can add eventual T2D to aphasia, brain cancer, Parkinson’s, MS and other alleged health problems used by Trump supporters to convince us that, in Streiff’s words, Clinton is “too sick to be president.”
Most medical claims about Clinton in traditional and online media have been purely speculative, as authoritative as the whispers of mean second-graders accusing a classmate of having “cooties.” But when it was disclosed that she had a verifiable, diagnosed health problem, pneumonia, it prompted a media feeding frenzy that dominated more than a few news cycles.
That raises an important question: if presidential candidates have specific medical conditions that could hamper their ability to meet the demands of the job, is it possible to have a responsible, public conversation about them? It should be. But that doesn’t seem likely to happen in the U.S. any time soon.
Imagine if news got out that Clinton – or, for that matter, Trump -- actually had diabetes. That would be a kiss of political death, at least during this vicious campaign season.
Of course, they do things differently across the pond in Great Britain. You might not have noticed, but Theresa May, the new British Prime Minister has type 1 diabetes. While Diabetes UK complained that some politicians “questioned May’s suitability for the job” of PM because of her T1D, by and large, British media treated the disease as either no big deal or a political asset.
A headline in The Telegraph proclaimed: “Midlife diabetes hasn’t stopped me – and it won’t: Theresa May.” While the Spectator had a more snide headline (“Theresa May: The First Prime Minister With a Discreet Need for Jelly Babies”), the article goes on to say that her example proves “having the condition need be no barrier to achieving the very highest positions in life and should serve as an inspiration to younger people diagnosed with it who may be afraid as to what the future may hold for them.”
Why didn’t the Brits consider a chronic disease to be a handicap to a head of state? Are they more civilized? Probably. Also, May wasn’t vying for votes in a fierce, head-to-head, national election; she was taking over as head of the Conservative Party and replacing the outgoing Prime Minister. And her T1D was already well-known, as it was diagnosed in 2012.
Nevertheless, the contrast between the national conversations about health in the U.S. and Great Britain couldn’t be starker. Theirs was mostly reasonable. Ours has been inane, characterized by what Suarabh Ja calls “Health McCarthyism, a new obsessiveness in the republic… Many have diagnosed [Clinton’s] ill health merely by looking at her. This is an extraordinary feat by the lay public, which physicians can’t achieve even after years of training.”
One problem with this medical rumor mill is that it has contributed to the dumbing-down of the political arena: for a while, we heard detailed, often silly talk about Clinton’s body and virtually nothing about her policy positions. But those of us with chronic diseases should also be concerned about another aspect of the fussing and fighting over her health, one that deserves more attention: the widely shared, false assumption that if either candidate has any hint of a “serious” or “chronic” illness, they should not be president.
Supporters of both Clinton and Trump bought into this assumption when they discussed her health. In The Hill, Patrick Tomlinson tried to reassure readers about Clinton’s pneumonia by calling it “a common disease and one that is a glorified chest-cold. It’s not a chronic condition, and it’s not a symptom of a more serious underlying illness or medical issue.” (emphasis added)
On the right, someone who is allegedly a physician called into Breitbart’s radio show and opined: “I really have a hard time believing that this is just a case of pneumonia, whereas I do believe there’s something else systemically going on -- a more chronic event that they’re not telling us.”
Well, what if she did have a chronic condition? Why would that automatically disqualify her? There are all kinds of diseases that are tagged as “chronic” and “serious.” Yes, some are debilitating and make it hard to hold a job, but others don’t prevent people from accomplishing great things.
We in the D-community talk proudly about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and many other high achievers, and advocates in other disease communities have their own heroes too (check some of them out here), including heads of state.
Polio didn’t stop FDR from getting us out of the Depression. Addison’s disease didn’t stop JFK from getting the upper hand in the Cuban missile crisis. Abraham Lincoln had serious, life-long depression and still saved the Republic (he is my second-favorite depressive; my first is Winston Churchill).
What the wise folks at Diabetes UK had to say about T1D applies to our brothers and sisters with epilepsy, thyroid and other cancers, asthma, many forms of cardiovascular and kidney diseases, depression and more than a few other chronic conditions:
“Type 1 diabetes is a serious health condition but it can be managed effectively with good care and support. It doesn’t change what you can do and people with the condition should have access to the same opportunities as people without the condition, whether that’s becoming Prime Minister, a doctor, teacher or any other job.”
Unfortunately, at least until the current election season is over, America’s chattering class is unlikely to listen to the sage of advice of those like bioethicist and medical historian Dr. Jacob Appel, who says, “I’d prefer to live in a world where people can embrace that our [public figures] can be ill, and still be great leaders… In judging our political leaders, we should view [their illnesses] as lenses to what these people have overcome.’”
That’s a worthy goal.
Judging by their acceptance of Prime Minister May’s T1D, the Brits seem closer to achieving it than Americans. Maybe if advocates for America’s chronic disease community keep educating people and counteracting myths and unfair stigmas, someday we’ll get there.
Once we do, if a presidential candidate comes along with a chronic disease, Americans will be better-equipped to have an informed, responsible conversation about it. (We sure hope.)