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5 Things John McCain Taught us About Courage and Medicine

Posted by Lawrence Kerr on Thu, Aug 30, 2018 @ 07:00 AM

jacob-stone-560933-unsplashAs you undoubtedly know, Senator John McCain died last weekend at his home in Arizona. 

While he wasn't a healthcare provider, and while we certainly weren't in agreement with every political stance he took, we found his life and principles an inspiring example of leadership and courage. In these challenge years in the medical system, that example of courage feels more relevant than ever for our lives as healthcare providers.

Son of military parents himself, a young John McCain moved frequently as a child -- attending more than 20 schools in his childhood. He went to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland but generally resisted conformity and showed an intense streak of independence and irreverence. It seems that his youthful adventuring became more focused and purpose-driven as he racked up years in the Navy. He flew 23 missions in Vietnam.

Then, perhaps the most famous episode of his life occurred. As a Navy lieutenant commander pilot, he was shot down over Vietnam and endured 5 and a half years of captivity, torture, starvation, and manipulation. 

Of course, he went on to serve two terms in the House of Representatives and six terms in the Senate. And then this past weekend, he died from the glioblastoma he had been receiving treatment for since 2017.


5 Things John McCain Taught Us About Courage and Medicine:

  • Don't let hard times be the end of the story. 
    I find it inspiring to think about how the young man who was shot down over Vietnam, and tortured and starved for more than 5 years, had no way of knowing how much was in store for him across his life. Ultimately, McCain didn't let his imprisonment and torture be the end of the story, just as so many healthcare providers must choose to make their personal or professional challenges be just the beginning of the story as well. 
  • Be independent. 
    Although Mr. McCain was a Republican, his voting record and stance on the issues tended to show an incredible amount of independence. Far from swayed by trends or expediency, McCain seemed to hew to what he saw as right. While few of us are voting in the halls of Congress, I believe that we're often pressured and even swayed by politics, trends, or habit. McCain's shining example of independence of thought (even if not always perfectly executed) is one we can all learn from. 
  • Let courage take precedence over self-interest. 
    As the New York Times reports, "At some McCain rallies, vitriolic crowds disparaged black people and Muslims, and when a woman said she did not trust Mr. Obama because 'he’s an Arab,' Mr. McCain, in one of the most lauded moments of his campaign, replied: 'No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.'" Many of us have the opportunity to do what's right, even when it seems impractical in the short term. This episode shows me how important that is, even when it seems like so much is on the line.
  • Perfection isn't required. 
    The reality is that John McCain sometimes acted inconsistently, sometimes let his temper get the better of him, and sometimes found himself on the wrong side of history in voting. And honestly -- this is part of his reality that inspires me. Perfection isn't required for leadership or for courage. What's required is standing up each day, accepting the reality of what you've been giving, and acting from your principles to the best of your ability. 
  • Collaborate with those who are different from you. 
    We talk frequently about the value of healthcare collaboration, especially across the continuum of care, with those who may have different perspectives than you have. McCain is known for being a core part of the Gang of Eight in Obama's presidency, a bipartisan group of Senators working towards comprehensive immigration reform. As McCain said, “I encourage my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to trust each other, stop the political gamesmanship and put healthcare needs of the American people first. We can do this.” 

Just as Mr. McCain spoke to President Obama's character in a high-pressure situation in the campaign, Mr. Obama released a statement on Saturday saying, "Few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage that he did. But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own. At John’s best, he showed us what that means.”

Just one more piece of evidence that courage and integrity breeds more courage and more integrity. A reminder that everyone in medicine can use. And as ever, McCain doesn't let us off the hook. As he said in 1993, “My time is slipping by. Yours is fast approaching. You will know where your duty lies. You will know.”


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