Pick up your mat and walk

There are many ‘miracles’ quoted in the Bible and they are rightly described as ‘miracles’, in the sense that they defy all reasoning. The Bible, no matter how deep one’s faith, is not, however, a scientific paper. When Jesus said to the lame man ‘Pick up your mat and walk’, there were no doctors on-site to prove that (a) the man was lame to begin with and (b) that other people could be cured in the same fashion.

We live in an age though, when Biblical miracles are possible – not through any divine intervention – but rather through the application of medical science that is, in itself, the product of many years of human scientific endeavor. How else can one explain the news that a paralysed man in the United Kingdom can now walk again?

You can read in detail about this breakthrough here, but for the purposes of this post, an implant of regenerative cells has knitted back together the spinal cord of a wheelchair-bound firefighter who was paralysed from the chest down, and restored sensation and muscle control to his legs.

I tingle when I write that, much like the man in question must have. It’s such an incredible breakthrough that on the one hand, one wants to whoop and shout and broadcast the news widely, but on the other hand, it’s such an achievement that one has to be careful not to offer false hope to other paralysed people.

Still, read this paragraph from the Independent article I linked to above and try not to feel immense pride in the human race that we did this:

“The astonishing breakthrough by an Anglo-Polish medical team is the first ever instance where a complete spinal paralysis has been reversed and represents the potential conquering of one of the greatest challenges in medical science. If validated, it offers hope of a life-changing therapy to the 2.5m people paralysed by spinal injury in Britain and across the world.”

For the man involved – Darek Fidyka – it is, of course, a miracle. He was given a 1% chance of having any recovery. He is now able to drive and live more independently. If this happened in Biblical times, we’d have a new Messiah by now.

The Independent is right to call the breakthrough ‘astonishing’. But it’s not unusual. Astonishing things are happening all the time in modern medicine, which are doing equally astonishing things to medical budgets across the world. Well, the Western World, at least.

These treatments don’t happen in a vacuum. Nowadays, the public can see and read about such great advances in medicine and, guess what, if they happen to be afflicted by such a condition, they think “Why can’t I have this treatment?”

This is one of the reasons why health budgets are spiraling ever upwards – new advances make it possible to do things that would have been regarded as impossible just a few years ago.

And when these advances come along, it’s almost impossible to deny them to people who suffer from illness, and heartless not to provide them with treatments that will radically improve their lives.

That’s why it’s disappointing to see our Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny say last week that it is the government’s intention to ‘deliver on Universal Health Insurance by putting in place the building blocks’. It’s a meaningless promise in so many ways. Firstly, Ireland is nowhere near ready for UHI as I’ve argued here, and secondly, the ‘building blocks’ commit him and the government to absolutely nothing.

There is no point in promising a better health service in five years’ time based on a model that won’t work in Ireland. And in five years’ time, five years will have gone by while we have waited for something to happen, only to be disappointed again.

What Enda Kenny and the Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar need to do is to produce a plan that will make improvements to the system now – not in five years’ time. Things may happen in medicine, like the miraculous treatment noted earlier, and things may change, but what we need now are actual proposals that would improve things today.

The days of cruising through an election without a clear, focused and costed health plan should really be over. We should no longer accept promises about a brighter dawn at some distant point in the future – rather we should ask each political party what they intend to do now to make the system better.

Breakthrough treatments like Darek Fidjka’s might take years to come on stream, and there’s a reason for that. The treatment has to be tested and re-tested and proven to work. That will take time. But the job of re-building the health service is something that should start now with practical measures, not promises about the future that might (and probably will) never happen.

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