Thursday, May 24, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

Keith Burris


Angels of mercy make the difference



I have recently found myself wandering in the inner regions of two large, impersonal systems: the justice system and the health-care system.

My brush with both was light. I got a traffic ticket in Ottawa Hills, which is easy to do during banker’s hours. It felt like a mugging, but hey, if you are over the speed limit by even a mile, you are not partly wrong, but all wrong. And the other side of the coin is a police force that keeps an eye on people’s homes when they are on vacation.

The education was going to Toledo Municipal Court. I went twice to pay my ticket. The first time, they wouldn’t take my money. It was too soon. The next time, I got to see various trials queue up. The place is grim and Dickensian. You feel guilty and diminished as a human being just being there. I remembered what Richard Pryor said he felt after doing a benefit concert at a prison: immense gratitude walking out the door, seeing the sun and feeling the air.

I had remarkably similar feelings about a brief, recent hospital stay. Being inside the health-care leviathan is dehumanizing. You just feel immensely happy to get out of that building, even if your doctors and nursing care were excellent, as mine were.

In both systems, if your luck is bad, and maybe you make a couple of bad decisions, you may never get out.

In both the justice and the health-care system, it is possible to be continually recycled — processed and reprocessed. In the justice system, they call it recidivism; in the health-care system, they call it old age.

I accompanied my mother on her last journey in this life. My mother was a proud, independent, and private woman who’d spent very little time in hospitals. She found herself inside a system for which there was no exit, because everything one doctor tried to fix caused another to break. It was very much like prison, with torture and without parole, though she did manage to break out for a time.

Both systems work well in extremis. When the stakes are high, everyone is suddenly on his A-Game, and exceptional individuals appear to take the wheel — doctors, nurses, lawyers, policemen, maybe clerks, who know their stuff and go the extra mile. They make huge differences in people’s perceptions, hopes, and lives.

But, if the situation is not dire or dramatic, these two systems re-set to a mediocrity and indifference that is bone-chilling.

The professionals who go “all in” can shrink the vast and impersonal. Suddenly, what seems like Kafka’s world on one of his darker days becomes Mayberry.

I have met a few of these heroes. I think the cost to their personal lives is great. Yet, many a soul is pulled back from the abyss by the great diagnostician, the caring nurse, the cop with a heart, the lawyer who loves justice.

But if you are in the belly of the medical or legal beast and do not receive the helping hand of one of these angels of mercy, it is better, as Bob Hope once told a graduating class, not to go.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.

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