Back in the 1960s, Andy Warhol predicted that everyone in America would someday be famous for 15 minutes. The artist had in mind a glitzy, Studio 54, disco-til-dawn sort of fame.
It hasn't worked out that way. The way to become famous right now is not through the social columns, but through the medical annals, and not as a performer but as a patient.
Just look at the record, the hospital record. Barney Clark was a superstar for 112 days, Baby Fae for 20 days. Now it's Bill Schroeder's turn. He couldn't be a better health-care star if he came from central casting.
We know about his taste for beer and his choice of basketball teams. We know about his phone call from the President and his Social Security hassles. We've watched him ask people to feel his artifical heart, and read about the effects of his stroke. We have seen him up and seen him down and rooted for him. Like the others in this peculiar medical lineup, he has become famous for what's been done to him.
My colleague at the Boston Globe, Otile McManus, calls this the era of celebrity medicine, and I think she is right. We take our high-tech medicine personalized now. We prefer our innovations with a shot of hype. The latest in medical technology comes attached to a name and a story. It makes it much more interesting.
I confess to being uncomfortable with all this. It not only makes celebrities out of patients. It turns medical researchers into publicity hounds. Would Humana Hospital have volunteered to pick up the bill for a hundred hearts if it did not believe that its patronage would pay off?
The company spokesman was not ashamed to admit his hope that the artificial-heart program wisll make Humana "a household world in health care." Must every research project now come complete with a press kit and an attractive, articulate patient available perhaps for talk shows and certainly evening-news programs?
But that isn't my only reservation. It seems apparent that celebrity medicine affects the decisions we all make about how to spend health-care dollars. When a new technique or treatment is attached to a real-life story, it makes the single rescue, the frontier heroism, the flashy high-tech medicine so much more attractive than the low-profile and low-cost tales of prevention of care.
As the dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, Harvey Fineberg, suggested some weeks ago: "Someone has to speak up for the thousands of people whose names are not on everybody's lips, who are dying just as surely as Mr. Schroeder and whose deaths are preventable."
I am not surprised or scornful of the fact that our public attention is captured most faithfully by a single life. It is easier to digest a human life than a statistic. But while Humana sponsors the artificial heart, we are also cutting Medicaid payments of hospital stays, closing community health programs and watching infant mortality rates rise in some cities. The cost of extending one life attached to a machine could, we know, feed, inoculate and save other people.
As Tom Murray, associate professor of the Institute of Medical Humanities at the University of Texas, puts it: "It is one thing to see a Bill Schroeder, and another to see a thousand women and say, "If we feed them, we're going to save maybe ten babies." We don't see those babies."
I don't begrudge Bill Schroeder his artifical heart, nor would I shut down the artifical-heart program at this stage.But there is a kind of media and moral schizophrenia between the celebrity of a few and the anonymity of others. Do you have to have the right sort of "interesting disease" now?
In this age of hi-tech celebrity medicine, how do we focus a spotlight on the people whose health issues aren't so glamorous? Must we put photographs of one pregnant woman a day in the paper? Must we put a school child on television each day and talk about what it means to have lunch?
In the sad aftermath of Bill Schroeder's stroke, when his ebullience was drained and he had clearly suffered brain damage, a doctor at Humana said. "Don't give up on Schroeder." The doctor suspected how fickle the audience and how fleeting this sort of fame can be. After all, we've already given up on so many people whose names we'll never know.