(Editor’s Note: The following opinion essay was written and submitted by local physician, Dr. Patrick Ball.)


When I was a young doctor, an old man gave me some advice. It was good advice in my estimation, and in these trying times, I feel compelled to pass it on. One should always consider the source when accepting or rejecting advice. Let me tell you a little bit about him so that you may draw your own conclusions. That is the American way, isn't it? Make your own decisions and choices?

Don was my patient for many years so I came to know him quite well. He was very smart, smarter than I am which does not say a whole lot but smarter than most smart people that I have known. He was well-educated, well-spoken and having worked for the FBI for 30 years, well-traveled and experienced. After he retired, he and his wife moved to Jackson so that his wife could be close to her family, an attestation to his character. When his wife passed, he stayed on. He was pretty much alone in the world since they had no children and he was an only child. He was a cantankerous old guy, opinionated but not rude, honest and straightforward. He said what he thought and meant what he said. Some might say he was abrasive, the type of person that does not make friends easily. He was a "by-the-book" sort of individual. His posture was straight. He was always on time and expected others to be. Clothing was neat and tidy, hair combed, always cleanly shaved and smelled of Aqua Velva (an after-shave, for anyone under 50). He looked you in the eye when he spoke to you and his handshake was firm. He rarely smiled and his analytic mind questioned everything. No detail escaped his attention. You might say he was demanding of himself and others. He was quite particular about the care I rendered but nonetheless, compliant and cooperative. On our first visit, he told me that he had "checked me out". He said he was favorably impressed so he made this appointment. I really did not know what he meant. I didn't really care. I was focused on the fact that he appeared rather pale and had a tremor. It was only later that I learned he was a former FBI agent, Secret Service no less. I was glad that I passed muster.

After I had seen him at the office a few times, he chastised me for not washing my hands after examining him. "You need to wash your hands after you examine a patient," he scolded. "I do wash my hands," I told him, "but not while I am in the room with the patient." "Why the hell not?" he demanded. “Because,” I explained, “I do not want my patients to feel like I think they are dirty or that I am afraid I might catch something from them so I wash them in the other room.” He said nothing, nodded affirmatively and never mentioned it again. I suppose in his line of work, one becomes proficient in recognizing both truth and deceit and gains the wisdom to know that sometimes things are not always as they seem.

Despite his rough demeanor, there was a tangible kindness and wholesomeness about him that was difficult to hide from someone like me who talks to people behind closed doors all day. It was recognizable in the stories he told to me over the years and I saw how he treated me and others. He was getting long in the tooth, his health not good and we both knew he didn't have much time left. He was the type of man I would take advice from so I was anxious to hear his. He prefaced his advice with, “Now Doc, I suspect you may have already heard this or at least should have heard it, being an educated man.” I had not. He rolled his eyes, shook his head and sighed. "Doctors," he said under his breath. His advice was this: "Live every day as if you thought it were your last, and someday, you will be right." I felt this and still do today. It was good advice, but very hard to follow, especially now.

If I thought today were my last day, I do know this: I would not be staying safe at home. I think I would like to take my wife to a movie and maybe out to supper at a nice restaurant. Or maybe spend it with my family on a beach somewhere. Maybe take the grandkids to a Reds game over in Cincinnati. Probably should get a haircut so I wouldn't look so shabby in my coffin tomorrow. I might even go to church tonight. I haven't been for a while and not because of the pandemic. Give it the old college try. One last shot at redemption (forgive me Lord). But today, I would not be allowed to do any of those things. Nor tomorrow. Who knows when? Don't ask the governor, Dr. Fauci or Dr. Brix. They don't seem to have the answer. Only statistics. I never liked statistics. The only thing I remember about them is that they are easily manipulated and subject to interpretation. However, I do like facts. Here's one for you. Death is inevitable. We are all going to die. You, me, everyone. There is no way around it. It has been planned that way and it is okay. I know the guy who formulated the plan. He is a friend of mine and yours. Sometimes, He is hard to understand but He is really, really smart. I trust His judgment. What is not okay is that someone other than Him thinks they have the ability to save your life by telling you how to live it. Yours and everyone else's. Not only do they think they have the ability to do so, they think it is their right to tell you to stay home and be safe. They have all the statistics to rationalize their recommendations or more accurately, their orders.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the most common place for a person to die is at home. (That's a statistic, by the way.) Therefore, should one conclude that he shouldn't go home or else he might die? I am being facetious. But do you see how there can be problems with statistics? The fact is no place is completely safe. If you are afraid to be out and about with COVID-19 lurking in the bushes, then stay home. That is your right. If you want to go out to Arch and Eddie's for dinner with a statistical risk of 1 in 300 of contracting coronavirus, then you should be allowed to do so. You are not endangering anyone inordinately except perhaps yourself and the other courageous diners less than 6 feet away. Everyone else is being safe at home, remember? (More facetiousness!)

The one aspect of the pandemic that concerns me the most is that freedom has been quarantined. As a physician, precious few things are more important to me than health, but freedom is one of them and you really can't have good health without freedom. Neither physical nor mental health. No governor, no president, no person has the right to tell a citizen that he cannot go to work to support his family. No right to tell them that they cannot attend church. No right to tell a husband, wife, father, mother, brother, sister, parent or grandparent that they cannot visit their loved one and hold their hand as they lay dying. And yet it has happened. What might be next? What right is in jeopardy? Freedom of speech? Freedom to keep and bear arms? What about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Safety or freedom? Which is more important to you?

So what can you do to prevent more of the same? Call, write, text, whatever, your senators and representatives. Ask them to base their decisions not so much on statistical analysis but on the Constitution. Appeal to their common sense. Wait, scratch that. Try to appeal to their sense of duty. You elected them. They owe it to you. Ask them to ask you what you want. It is your country, your life, your freedom. It is a cause that many have died for. We owe them something. It is a debt that cannot be paid by accepting forced isolation due to fear of the enemy. It can only be paid with the courage and conviction to fight for what they died for, freedom. There will always be wars and pandemics and death will follow. But if fought for, freedom never dies. Even death cannot take it, at least not from those of us who believe in a higher power. But it can be lost, taken, or given away and very difficult to regain.

Alas, I regress. It happens when you get older. I never finished my story from before. Toward the end of that visit, Don asked me a question. "Doc," he said, "so what is your philosophy of life? What advice do you give your patients?" It caught me off guard. I had not really thought about it. Distracted by years of education and handicapped by the inexperienced and cavalier attitude of youth, I struggled for an answer. At first, I thought I would change the subject and discuss his health matters. But that wouldn't fly. I knew Don and he expected a philosophical answer. Next I thought I would turn to the advice of Mark Twain who said, "It is better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you might be stupid than to open it and remove all doubt." That wouldn't work either. He already knew whether or not I was stupid. (My wife still hasn't decided. The odds of a favorable verdict are 17 to 1 against me but after 46 years of marriage and my knowledge of statistics, I remain cautiously optimistic.)

So I started like this: "Now Don, you may have already heard this, you know, being educated and all, so stop me if you have heard it." He had not. "My advice," I said, "is the same as Marshall Dillon's on Gunsmoke." He rolled his eyes. "Be your own man and do your own thinking." He gave me a stern look that lasted for eternity. Then he smiled. "That's good," he said. My friend's philosophy and advice came true for him a few weeks later.

I think both of our philosophies and advice are good ones. They are basically the same. We should be allowed to live every day as if it were the last. We should be able to be our own person and do our own thinking. Be allowed to take risks with reasonable precautions to protect the safety of others, while never forgetting that safety does not protect freedom and fear only compromises it.

Our advice is the embodiment of freedom itself. The song writer Samuel Francis Smith said it more eloquently, "Let freedom ring!" Don and I might add, "Forever!"

Now what are we going to do with all of those leftover ventilators?