Rescuing American Healthcare

Jun 27, 2013


Photo: Escape Fire (Integrative Productions LLC)

For a documentary on the American healthcare system, Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare in a way you might not expect: with a dramatic reenactment of the 1949 wildfire in Mann Gulch, Mont. The story goes like this: The fire, moving up a mountain at 600 feet per minute, quickly began to overtake the smokejumpers deployed on the fire. Due to his quick critical thinking and ingenuity, a smokejumper named Wag Dodge survived by lighting an escape fire, a fire lit to clear an area of vegetation to deprive an approaching fire of fuel. Thirteen others perished.

To quote Dr. Don Berwick, the head of Medicare/Medicaid from 2010-2011: “We’re in Mann Gulch.”

Doing its work as a documentary, Escape Fire presents lots of numbers to its viewers. The United States spends $300 billion on prescription drugs per year. Seventy-five percent of healthcare costs go to treating largely preventable chronic diseases. The U.S. is ranked 50th in life expectancy and spent $2.7 trillion on healthcare in 2011. The average length of a primary care physician visit is only seven minutes. In short, Americans aren’t getting a lot of bang for our buck.  

While the movie is largely focused on physical health issues such as heart disease, obesity and cancer, the same unfortunate rules apply to those with mental health issues. The invisibility of mental illness often adds another layer of difficulty for those seeking effective treatment (the navigation of the healthcare system for those living with mental illness is worthy of a feature length documentary itself).

But what this film does expertly throughout is highlight the mind-body connection and its contribution to mental and physical health. Dr. Andrew Weil, the founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona (and frequent Oprah guest), and Dr. Dean Ornish, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in California, make appearances.  Both are firm believers in the ever-increasing scientifically bolstered integrative approach to medicine, utilizing nutrition, yoga, meditation and exercise in their respective programs.

The numbers presented in Escape Fire are startling enough. It is the film’s humanization of them in U.S. Army Sergeant Robert Yates that really drives home the facts. We first see Yates, a young, red-headed, but tired-eyed Afghanistan veteran, as he heads back to the U.S. for various treatments. He sustained back and head injuries from IEDs and bullets and is in a wheelchair.  He also lives with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression. He has lost dozens of his comrades during his time served; one to a prescription drug overdose. On the Aeromedical Evacuation (AeroVac) plane-ride back, he is so heavily sedated he falls out of his cot. His prescription bottles take up enough space to fill a gallon Ziploc bag.  

An undisclosed amount of time later, we find Yates at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C.  He is no longer on medication, receives acupuncture and practices meditation and yoga.  

“We’re going to leave these in for five, seven minutes,” his acupuncturist says, referring to the small needles in his ears. Earlier in the film, a similar acupuncture technique for pain was tested on a different group of soldiers during an AeroVac, with reported success.

“Roger that,” Yates replies.

Later, during a guided group meditation session, Yates seemingly experiences a flashback. With closed eyes, he repeats his instructor’s closing words:

“May everyone be well.  May everyone be healthy. May everyone be happy.”

As Yates prepares to leave Walter Reed, discharge papers in hand, middle finger aimed at his folded wheelchair, he walks around his room smiling. It is the first time the camera captures it.

What Escape Fire makes abundantly clear is this: there must be a remodeling of the entire American healthcare system, wherein preventive and integrative care is the norm. We must reassess the status quo. Much like those in Mann Gulch, we can’t afford not to.

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