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A Higher Mountain

By Dr. Evan Saulino
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Out along the old Oregon Trail – where the Pioneers who shaped the American West made their difficult journey toward a better future – there’s a lonely campground high in the Blue Mountains.  It sits right next to the Grande Ronde River - swollen by melting snow in the early summer - rushing by like a black and green snake on the hunt. At the end of a dusty campground road, boxed in by steep mountain slopes several thousand feet high that are thickly covered with tall evergreens, there’s a simple wooden sign that says:

Working together, people lowered wagons down yonder mountain. Tough work for tough people. Tomorrow a higher mountain.

Although media-fueled consumer culture and Right Wing ideology seem to tell the story that Individualism is what made America great, in reality it is that driving “higher purpose” – the belief that working together we can accomplish anything – that has made the United States the strong nation it is today. 
 

Watching the health reform debate and the federal debt-limit/budget negotiations recently, you might wonder where is that “higher purpose” in our nation?

Outside of Washington, D.C. politics of course, despite a concerted messaging effort to drive us apart, there continue to be many examples of inspired action occurring through communities working together towards a better future.

Though not anywhere near as difficult as the journey American Pioneers took, that same inspiration and empowerment is driving the physically demanding 1,000-mile journey of three medical students across Oregon today.

Nathan Defrees, Matthew Sperry and Weston Fuhrman - between their 1st and 2nd year of medical school at Oregon Health & Science University – are riding their bikes (with Daphne, a veterinary student) down the wild Pacific Coast, along snaking rivers, over steep mountain passes, through the stunning splendor of our state, spreading this message:

  • Rural communities don’t have enough primary care professionals, which jeopardizes our health as well as our economic stability.
  • We should encourage more graduating medical students to practice in rural areas by supporting bills at the state and federal level to increase funding for loan repayment and forgiveness.
  • By providing more support to rural medical practices, we can help rural areas hold on to the doctors they have.
  • Bringing additional primary care professionals into a community boosts the local economy, brings down the cost of health care for everyone, and most importantly makes the community healthier overall.

Along with local family doctors, the 3 medical students have been giving presentations (sponsored by the Oregon Academy of Family Physicians and supported by a grant from the Northwest Health Foundation) to local business community groups like Chambers and Rotary clubs. The “Biking Medical Students” have generated some good local press coverage and have found themselves embraced by the communities they’ve visited.  

They have a great blog with amazing pictures and stories of the incredibly supportive communities – find out what they’re up to today right heresee their routeread about their mission - join their “virtual community” and leave them a message of support or encouragement.

They are nearly at the end of their journey - Enterprise, Oregon  - way out in the far Northeast corner of the state, near Hells Canyon, not too far from the “Tomorrow a higher mountain” sign. 

And so they’ll climb their last mountain of this journey, and have their last community presentation along with Dr. Elizabeth Powers - all followed by a celebration BBQ on August 5th hosted by the Mayor.

These students are an inspiration to me, and have been an inspiration to the doctors and communities they’ve visited.  Through this journey, people are recognizing what I wish more Americans and DC politicians would: When we work together, we can accomplish anything, but blame and infighting get us nowhere.

We know what we need to do to ensure a more secure economic and health care future.  The problem is not a lack of ideas that will work.

We just need to remember the way, as a community, how to get to over that mountain.

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