Mary and Meghan McVey were married in May, at Niagara Falls. They’ve been together for 11 years and are raising three children, including one with severe learning disabilities. They’ve had some tough times as parents and as a gay couple, especially when they lived down in Cincinnati. But “We’ve finally reached the smooth end of things,” Meghan said. And Mary added, “Some gay people need to put it in your face. We’ve just decided to be ourselves and people can take it or leave it.” Both Meghan and Mary work in health care–Meghan as an EMS dispatcher and Mary as a nurse in an coronary intensive care unit. They put together a group of their friends and co-workers to meet with us–me, Katy Steinmetz and Danny Strong, who wrote the screenplays for Game Change and Recount on HBO–at their home in Toledo.
Much of our meeting had to do with the health care system, especially fee-for-service medicine, which most of the McVeys’ co-workers saw as a major waste of money. “People who have insurance get every test under the sun,” said Deb Piatkowski, who works in the ICU with Mary. “Including a lot they don’t need. People without insurance get practically nothing.” She said doctors tended to order extra tests because they were afraid they’d be sued for malpractice–but, as I reported a few weeks ago in the TIME cover story about the death of my parents, Deb believed the system would work far more efficiently if it had an “evidence-based” best-practices backbone.
Mary added that it was often clear to the nurses when patients had reached the point of no return, “but we’re still performing tests and procedures because the doctors want them or the families ask for them.”
As we continued the conversation, though, a different theme began to emerge–the difficulty of having a full time job, raising a family and keeping up with the news at the same time. It began with the Affordable Care Act. Judy Russell, another ICU nurse, said she was opposed to Obamacare because it was “socialized medicine” that would have the government take over control of the system from doctors and nurses. But when I pressed her on the details, she didn’t have them–which is not an unusual reaction. The others in the group, even those who disagreed with Russell about Obamacare, had a great deal of sympathy for her lack of knowledge. “There’s just so much information out there and these issues are so complicated,” said Katie Bunkers, another nurse, “that it’s impossible to figure out what’s right, even if you try to understand. Sometimes I get the feeling that they don’t want us to understand.”
Deb Piatkowski agreed. “I was a teenager in the ’70s, then I was a mom in the ’80s and ’90s. Now my kids are just getting out of school and having trouble finding jobs and I’m worried about how we’re going to retire,” she said, nodding over toward her husband Rob, an electrician. “And so I’m really beginning to think about politics for the first time, but it’s hard. We’re all intelligent people here, but it’s really difficult to sift through these issues.”
Mary was a news junkie, an MSNBC viewer, and she volunteered that even when you knew the issues, the choices weren’t all that inspiring: “You just go with the least scary alternative.” Judy Russell, the most conservative of the nurses, said she was going to vote for President, but neither alternative was very good. “You get the feeling that Romney was practicing the same sort of politics as Obama when he was up in Massachusetts.”
Danny Strong then asked a simple, but elegant question: “What are you proudest of as an American citizen?”
The room fell silent, but not because they were stumped. They were just thinking about it. Finally, Judy said, “Our Constitution. I like the way it is and that it was born in a revolution. Maybe we need another revolution now.”
Deb Piatkowski added, “I can’t see people in other countries doing things like this, sitting around and talking
freely.” (I might add that in the course of three road trips I’d rarely met people willing to be so honest about the difficulty of being an informed citizen in a post-industrial society, in the information age, in a globalized world. This is an absolutely crucial problem, fundamental to the ability of our democracy to survive. And I’m really grateful to Meghan and Mary’s friends for raising it.)
We went outside to take a photo of Meghan and Mary–and I hope they’ll keep it with their wedding photos. Then we drove Danny, truly a great traveling companion, to the Detroit airport…and went on to our next town meeting in Brighton, Michigan.