Originally posted on July 8, 2020.
When I was six years old, my Mom loaded up our family’s station wagon, put me in the back seat and my brother Ian, in the front seat beside her, and began the long drive to Alabama to visit her Mom, her sister Dot, her brother John and their families.
My Dad, who was the Chair of the Urology Department at the University of Missouri, had too much on his professional plate to spare the time to spend a couple of weeks in Montgomery and then at Mom’s Aunt Maude’s house in Foley. But, he did his part for the journey, getting a mechanic to go over the car and buying all new tires.
When we were an hour or so north of Montgomery, Mom saw a sign advertising ripe peaches and she pulled over to buy enough to provide peach pies and peach ice cream for every single family member to enjoy. As we pulled back onto the highway, the air in the car was redolent with the rich smell of ripe peaches.
As we drove south, we talked of who we would see and what we would do on this family vacation. And then, BAM! BAM! BAM! Three of the band-box new tires blew at the same time. And Mom, albeit a great driver, couldn’t control the car. It plunged down the near vertical drop, rolling again and again, finally coming to rest at the bottom of what, to my six-year-old eyes, looked like the Grand Canyon.
Since the car had landed on its back, Ian and I had some difficulties unbuckling our seat belts but, finally managed it, and, Ian went up the hill to try to flag down passers-by while I stayed with Mom, who was sliding in and out of consciousness, having sustained many serious injuries.
Mom spent most of that summer in the hospital in Montgomery, first in the ICU and then in a regular room.
Ian and I spent over a month in Montgomery, living with our Aunt Dot, one of Mom’s sisters, and her husband, Uncle Jimmy. Each day, they took us to see Mom in the hospital. I didn’t know it at the time but they feared Mom wouldn’t make it and they wanted to make sure we had told her each day that we loved her.
Even during the first few days after the accident, the one thing we heard over and over again, was that, had the three of us not been wearing our seat belts, we would all have been dead. As it was, Ian and I had just sustained scratches, and although Mom’s injuries were severe, she survived.
In our family, seat belts have never been optional. You get in a vehicle, you fasten your seat belt. And maybe that horrific experience on a road in Alabama influenced not only our family’s default position on seat belts, but also Mom’s decision, while raising a family and practicing medicine full time, to gain her Master’s degree in Public Health from the University of Missouri.
On the national stage, health and safety professionals have presented data and shown legislators and big business that seat belts should be required in all vehicles (even my John Deere tractor has a seat belt!). Seat belts are now installed in all vehicles. They save lives. And, since the 1960’s, they are much more effective since they have evolved from the lap belts of that time to the combined lap and shoulder belts of the present era.
The discussion about seat belts wasn’t the first public health issue to percolate its way onto the national stage. As early as 1905, in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), the United States Supreme Court held that government could act to protect the “public” health, through collective action. In that case, the Court upheld a local ordinance requiring that individuals be vaccinated for smallpox during a smallpox epidemic. The underlying rationale for the decision was, in part, that what happens to individuals impacts the collective body, and that individual rights will not be read categorically to trump the collective well-being.
Since Jacobson, on the national, state, and local levels, we routinely see implementation of rules with public health implications. Their focus is wide-ranging, from infectious disease, to causes of chronic disease, to causes of motor vehicle accidents—speeding, drinking while driving--, and on and on.
Part of the current debate in this country and in this county is whether government has the authority to issue a so-called “mask” order. Short answer is “yes,” the government DOES have that authority, as the Supreme Court recognized starting in 1905. This authority has led to:
* Seat belts
* Speed limits
* Safety glass in automobile windshields
* Polio vaccinations
* Smallpox vaccinations
...and a whole host of other initiatives that enhance public health and safety.
My Mom’s life—and almost death—experience undoubtedly led to her support for and lobbying efforts on behalf of other public health and safety issues—such as the requirement of safety glass in automobile windshields. For that particular issue, Mom had to address the opposition’s claims that safety glass cost more, making vehicles more expensive for individuals and businesses to purchase. Mom and others involved in the push for change asked legislators to balance the relatively small cost of the different glass against the health benefits—saving people in accidents from being injured by shards of glass as the windshield broke.
My brother, who served in the Army for 30 years before retiring as a “full bird” colonel, and who is now a hospital administrator for a hospital designated for COVID-19 patients in San Antonio, recently told the people of his county, “wear a mask.” He, and public health professionals across the globe are all too aware that we don’t have many tools to fight this bug. But, one of the tools that we DO have that can help stop the spread is wearing a mask.
So, my question to you is—when we KNOW that wearing a mask will help stop the spread of this deadly disease, why aren’t we all wearing one? It’s no different than wearing a seat belt or driving the speed limit. It saves lives.