In one of life's many ironies, I wound up having a conversation last week with a hospice doctor. The irony lies in the fact that Faith, Hope, and Dr. Vangelis, my nearly-complete next book, has a hospice doctor as protagonist. He listened with interest to what I told him about the plot and offered some suggestions about "how hospice doctors think." This was a bit of serendipity, as I wasn't there to do research or discuss writing issues. I was there to get shaken up, an expectation that was rewarded.
During our conversation, light poured in through towering windows in a hotel ballroom. The setting: Squaw Valley in the Sierra Nevada range, just a few miles from Lake Tahoe. The occasion: 2017 Carter Center Weekend. For those who don't know, this is a very popular vacation spot for folks from California and Nevada and the resorts were packed with travelers who were there for the hiking, kayaking, snowboarding and skiing (in late June!). The natural beauty of this area is stunning, which can foster a feeling of tranquility, or perhaps awe. It also breeds a sense of tranquility. At such a place, we stand in awe of wonders that exceed the mightiest works of human hands.
There was tranquility, but also concern. Every year, The Carter Center holds a five-day gathering for donors of both money and professional services. We were among the minority of first-timers; the room was packed with those who've made this event a centerpiece of their travel plans. It might seem odd, therefore, that one of the unspoken purposes of the weekend was to shake us up. In his post-presidential life, Jimmy Carter has poured his energies into a variety of good works, focusing primarily in the areas of peacemaking, promoting free elections, and combatting disease. The presentations yanked us out of the affluent trappings of a mountain resort and transported us to distant lands – Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, Guatemala – where The Carter Center has active local organizations battling diseases most of us have never heard of: Guinea worm disease, river blindness, trachoma. These were sobering reminders of how many people still live in conditions most of us would consider primitive.
It's part of the American approach to combat disease by attacking it with massive technological resources. The Carter Center has found that, in societies where poverty prevents the deployment of such resources, relatively simple measures can go a long way. The discussion of battling trachoma, a fly-borne parasitic ailment that can cause both intense pain and total loss of sight, noted with gratitude that pharmaceutical manufacturers have donated hundreds of thousands of doses of antibiotics to fight this malady. At the same time, teams of physician volunteers train local doctors in surgical techniques to prevent blindness and other volunteers dig latrines in places where there have never been sanitation systems.
Occasions like this can cause one to think long and hard about one's values. I'm still wrestling with what I can do, and whether my values are in the right place.