Worth the Coming Home

Worth the Coming Home


I fully expected to see this newspaper headline. Most of the things I worked on made national news. But maybe not this time.

Momma’d had a heart attack, and I’d come home from Washington to fill in for her “for a couple of days.” She was the receptionist in my father’s rural family medical practice east of Knoxville.

With my arrival, the tiny office was bursting with degrees from UT: two in pharmacy (B.S. and Pharm.D.), one in medicine, one in engineering, and one in law. Daddy’s office was probably unique in that “doctors” also manned the reception desk.

Unfortunately most of my previous work experience was being a spoiled, haughty, aggressive, overdressed U.S. Senate committee counsel (specialty: nuclear environmental law)–not a kindly swabber-upper of body fluids nor a stoic fixer-upper of maulings and manglings.

It’s hard to decide what was most shocking about my suddenly, drastically changed circumstances, but probably it was learning that Medicare would reimburse claims caused by “legal execution, beheading, decapitation (by guillotine).” I was looking for the code for “sore throat” and saw it. What sort of care could a senior citizen possibly need after having her head chopped off?

I know this sounds cranky. And I’m willing to admit I wasn’t making the most graceful of transitions to the profession of receptionist. (Yes, it proved a lot harder to get out of Strawberry Plains and back to my glitzy life than I’d expected.) But the most painful aspect wasn’t trading Neiman Marcus for Wal-Mart.

It was realizing that although I could draft nuclear legislation, I was utterly buffaloed by filling out a Medicare form for a patient with a stomachache. What I’d done easily as a 15-year-old was impossible after 40 because, in the interim, the government had “streamlined” the system.

Would you have guessed there’s a Medicare code for “accident involving spacecraft, includes launching pad accident, excludes effects of weightlessness in spacecraft”? There is.

Although a former boss, the brave and beloved astronaut and senator John Glenn, went into space at age 77, I’ll bet such an event is only slightly more common than filing for Medicare benefits following your execution by guillotine. So why did we have a specific code for these things? And why, if we’re trying to keep healthcare costs down, do we provide Medicare reimbursement for “problem, spoiled child” and “quarrelsomeness”? I was forced to wonder about my own presumed competence as a writer of laws and regulations.

For 40 years my parents quietly treated about a third of Daddy’s patients for free–the working poor, the mentally challenged. Together, they worked 24/7 for decades, often awakened by patients at least once during the night. With Momma unable to work, I was the only person they could “afford” as a replacement: I could live in the basement and work for food.

What I saw at ground zero of public service as opposed to what I saw from the secretary of the navy’s Lear jet forced me to ask some hard questions.

Are we serious about addressing healthcare?

Apparently not.

Under the newfangled drug program are prescription drug benefits available for seniors who have been guillotined?

Probably so.

Is swabbing up barf more meaningful than writing speeches for prime-time news?


Heart in the Right Place, published for Father’s Day, displays my spectacular ineptitude alongside the escapades of Daddy’s rather eccentric patients. It’s guaranteed to make you laugh. Fannie Flagg and Dolly Parton loved it. Alums may go to www.CarolynJourdan.com and get a specially inscribed copy.

Jourdan (Knoxville ’76, ’81) is a writer for Great Smoky Mountains Association. Her father, Paul, and mother, Elise, earned UT pharmacy degrees in 1954, and Paul also holds an M.D. (’59). Heart in the Right Place was selected by three leading book clubs–Literary Guild, Doubleday, and American Compass.