A man my age grows up wondering: Could I have hit the beach at Normandy? How would I have handled being trapped near the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, thousands of Chinese pouring over the border and a bitter winter coming on fast? What about Vietnam, or later Iraq and then Afghanistan and Iraq again? I come not from the Greatest Generation but the Wondering One — lucky, a reaper of what others have sown, and now, jaw agape, I wonder about health workers who leave the comforts and certainties of the United States and go to Africa to treat Ebola patients. Who are these people?
Some of them, it seems, are deeply religious. Certainly this is the case with Kent Brantly, who contracted Ebola in Liberia and was flown back to the United States for treatment. He survived, testified before Congress, was welcomed to the White House by President Obama and aw-shucked his considerable courage by invoking God. I envy his faith. I am in awe of his courage.
Others, I have to note, were not as impressed by Brantly. Donald Trump, a furious germaphobe who dislikes shaking hands, tweeted: “Stop the EBOLA patients from entering the U.S. Treat them, at the highest level, over there. THE UNITED STATES HAS ENOUGH PROBLEMS!” What the “highest level” in Liberia may be would surely not suffice Trump if he were stricken there. Sometime in the past, he must have shaken hands with an idiot.
Ann Coulter is similarly afflicted. She mocked Brantly for taking his missionary zeal to Africa when there is so much to do here. “If Dr. Brantly had practiced at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles and turned one single Hollywood power-broker to Christ, he would have done more good for the entire world than anything he could accomplish in a century spent in Liberia. Ebola kills only the body; the virus of spiritual bankruptcy and moral decadence spread by so many Hollywood movies infects the world.” What’s the cure for such thinking?
As for the rest of us, we can only be diminished by Brantly and others like him. They have put their careers on hold, spent the vacation money and gone off without ceremony or expected glory to succor the sick, save lives — do what only doctors and other health-care professionals can do. From my colleague, The Post’s Lenny Bernstein, comes an idea of what it is like to restrain your every reflex — to touch, to embrace, to hug, to draw closer. Instead, in Liberia, he wrote, he was always backing up, shying from the people who wanted to get closer — the sparkling little girl who approached and stuck out her hand: “‘Shake!’ she offered excitedly.
“ ‘No touching,’ I responded, keeping my hands at my sides, trying to hide my sadness. ‘No touching.’ ”
Or from Sheri Fink of the New York Times, an idea of what it is like to work inside the space suit known as personal protective equipment. She quoted an American physician named Steven Hatch: “ ‘It feels constantly like being pushed down, like suffocating,’ he said. His goggles were steaming up. He was sweating so much — the temperatures often reached more than 90 degrees outside and even more inside the ward — that he felt like he was swimming inside his suit.” And all around people are dying and not in some sweet cinematic fashion but by expelling bodily fluids.
In 1991, I accompanied Jesse Jackson and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where exhausted Haitian boat people were being scooped from the sea by the Coast Guard. Jackson recited a fragment of the Emma Lazarus poem affixed to the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” Who could be more tired than these people literally huddled behind concertina wire? Who could not wonder at the vagaries of fortune? They were born poor in Haiti. I was born middle class in America. There is not much more to it.
“Giving back” has become a trite cliche, uttered by celebrities coached by their PR aides. But there are people who actually do it — not just with money or a photo op playing ball with some kids but by giving their time and, even, their very lives. I want all of them assembled at the White House, as is done for the Super Bowl champs, or marched down Broadway in a blizzard of ticker tape, or merely remanded to our individual places of honor — nagging consciences asking nagging questions: Why them? Why not us?
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