She stood in the living room of our friends' home, her right arm clutching a doll, her left arm hanging close to her small body. "Give the doll a bear hug," I said but she would not move her left arm. "It hurts," she said, worry on the edge of her voice.

Thus began Katherine Margaretta's first medical trauma, which considering she is nearly 2 1/2 years old and routinely roughhouses with two older brothers, isn't bad, although it wasn't good either: It was miserable for her and trying for the rest of us. But we were left with a profound appreciation for the medical care we have--and a profound awareness of what is being so severely threatened for others.

Katherine's problems began shortly after she returned from a Sunday walk on which she stumbled and fell occasionally, creating an abnormal pull between her arm and the hand of her teen-age companion. By early evening, we were on the way to the Arlington Hospital emergency room, a route well traveled over the years of weekend athletic injuries, concussions and experimental eating capers (would you believe mothballs?) that go along with having children. It doesn't get any easier.

We arrived in the waiting room and were admitted immediately. Within 10 minutes, Katherine was wheeled into the treatment area and seated on a rolling bed. A nurse cut off her pullover shirt. The first of three doctors who would ultimately examine her arrived. She was fine until he touched her arm. She wailed when he moved her shoulder and elbow. She wept with such pain and bewilderment that she was unable to indicate where the pain was most intense. Shortly thereafter, he returned with another doctor. The second doctor's examination of her arm ended with a scream as he twisted the elbow.

He looked up. "I think I heard a click." He explained that the elbow often gets pulled apart in little children, but that it can be easily rotated back in place and the child is fine. Ten minutes later, he returned. Katherine was holding her arm in her lap, bending her elbow slightly, but she could not move it. X-rays were ordered and, after a slight delay, she was wheeled off, clutching a balloon.

The X-rays were painful: when the technician moved her arm she would cry out in a voice that could break your heart. But she held still when necessary, clutching her security blanket; tears were in her eyes, but trust was there too. The X-rays were ready immediately and a nurse wheeled Katherine back into the treatment area, where the doctor looked at them and came back with a report. Something that could be a shoulder injury was showing up on the X-ray. But it could be just the way Katherine was built. He ordered a set of comparison X-rays with her right shoulder, and said an orthopedic resident would be arriving soon to look at her.

The final set of X-rays showed both shoulders to have the same formation. The orthopedic resident examined Katherine and came to the same conclusion the other two doctors had: she had something called nursemaid's elbow, which could be painful for several days or even a week after it has been clicked back into place. He put a wet splint on her arm and wrapped it in an ace bandage. The second doctor reappeared with a brightly colored sling which he fastened around her arm and neck. She left with a smile on her face and a lollipop in her hand.

We had the best of care, with every precaution taken that she had been correctly diagnosed and that there was nothing fractured. She was treated promptly and kindly by nurses, doctors and the X-ray technician, and when she has to go the hospital again she will understand that she will be helped there, not harmed.

She got all of this because we have insurance that gives us access to a first-rate medical facility. But access to this kind of care is being threatened for hundreds of thousands of people now.

Federally supported medical care is being talked about as though it were some expensive social luxury we can't afford, which is rather like a Rockefeller saying he gave at the office.

All of the ideological attacks on big government and big spending notwithstanding, federal medical programs have made it possible for many poor people, including Hispanic and Vietnamese immigrants who have settled in Arlington, to have the same medical care Katherine received. For all the numbers that are being thrown around in the debate over cuts in medical benefits, what we are really talking about is helping people, including children, who are in pain.

Are we so impoverished as a nation--not financially, because we certainly aren't that--but so short on compassion that we would sacrifice that?