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Doctors, from mama to COVID

Before COVID makes a come-back, it’s worth talking about science and medicine.

When I was in college, mama told me our doctor examined her from a distance of about 6 feet and told her the lump on her breast was just arthritis and nothing to worry about. Mama died about five weeks before I graduated. Even in 1959 it was pretty obvious to this layman that advice was nonsense.

Papa remarried while I was in law school, giving me a step sister. Though we met as adults, Bobby and I became very close. Her husband was a world-famous doctor who specialized in cancer. One year, Phil came to speak at the dedication of a new Albany facility for the treatment of cancer, to be run by people he knew and significantly improve the handling of cancer here in Albany. At one point we talked about what happened to Mama. Phil told me it was impossible to know whether the cancer had spread before that doctor’s foolish advice. Nevertheless the pain and anger linger. I’d give anything for mama to have had the pleasure of meeting her daughter in-law and grandchildren.

Having gotten both excellent and horrible advice, I’ve become a skeptical patient. I look for the best doctors available and expect them to listen to my description of my symptoms and issues, not just jump to conclusions. And I try to figure out whether their advice is a guess or based on solid science. So I’m by no means pollyannish about science. And there’s always more to investigate that could change results. Just the same, even a doctor’s guess is probably better than mine, though sometimes the evidence can be misleading.

Vaccines are completely different. As I commented last week, George Washington had the troops inoculated against smallpox. Most people today have no memory of the scourge polio inflicted on my generation. As a kid, my definition of a nightmare was a child caged in an iron lung because they’d lost the ability to breathe on their own. It felt like Jonas Salk saved my life. Actually I've had multiple polio vaccines over the years because it was standard practice for some foreign travel and for the Peace Corps but I had my first when I was a teen. New Yorkers lined up around the block to get it! Vaccines are tested among thousands of people. We know the likelihoods that people who have and have not been vaccinated will get polio or other disease and can make the comparison. The comparison for polio was stark. Anything was worth it not to be paralyzed or end up in an iron lung.

After the trials that they go through, vaccines are the gold standard of medicine. We really know what's going on. We don't know who’ll get sick but we know absolutely and very clearly the reduction in the likelihood that they will be sick, injured or killed by the disease. So neither I nor my wife ever had any doubt that we would take the vaccine for COVID. Yes, vaccines sometimes have side effects and yes, we've seen that happen, but the choice has never been close.

— If you think I’m on target, please pass it on.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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