03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Altruism: It Lies Within All of Us

Altruism: The ultimate driver of charity. Doing something just because it is the right thing to do. It lies within all of us, to one extent or the other, indelibly etched in our genome and cultural heritage. In some, the willingness to yield to its power occurs every minute of every day. In others, it sparks to life spontaneously from time to time. For many, it requires a little cajoling to move a person to charitable action. So what does it take to turn on the altruistic fire in each of us? What is the trigger?

I have been told that my choice of public health as a profession puts me in the former of those categories. I certainly did not do it for the level of pay. My oldest daughter used to get kidded when she attended her scholarship-paid private school in Cincinnati because I was in the health field, but I am not a doctor. We constantly got mail sent to Dr. Gary Stein, no matter how many times I corrected them. The other parents and administration couldn't figure out my motivation. How can you be working in the health field and have an income of less than $45,000 per year? Considering that I lived in a family with some medically-fragile people, I had to rely on my insurance to keep them healthy, instead of my income. In this day and age, with the current state of the health-care system, it may have not been my best decision, but I made it with the altruism in my heart running at full-blast.

At the time, I was working as a field agent and Public Health Advisor for the CDC, tracking and bringing folks with STDs, TB and HIV to treatment. It was a noble cause and hard work. I did it over 2 decades, moving my family across the country thru several automatic transfers. It was hard on my family and far from comfortable or glamorous. So why did I do it? I felt personally rewarded. It made me feel good.

Recently, the Huffington Post reprinted an article from the St. Pete Times about my wife and family, and how we have endured the trials and tribulations of dealing with the health care system and my their genetically-based disease, Sticklers Syndrome. The combination of my middle-class income and the ability (or inability) of our insurance to cover their care lead to a financial decision that ultimately lead to my wife's current loss of eyesight for the sake of her children's care. When the Post decided to put us in the news again to roll out their Impact section, the response was overwhelming, and close to a thousand contributors gave what they could to help with our bills and our families care. We are still trying to write all the thank-you notes to each and every one.

This spontaneous outpouring of generosity left us totally humbled and reinstated my faith in the current state of humanity. They didn't have to. No one forced them to. They wanted to make an impact.

The same cannot be said of our Congress, which was entrusted to pound out a health-care reform bill for the sake of their constituents. The house bill is better than the senate bill, but they are so far apart that they next step of reconciliation my never conclude. Both houses came up with bills that satisfied the interests of the special interest groups who are a large part responsible for the current problems of our health-care system. Given the chance, it looks like the congress may go as far as combining only the parts of the bill that satisfies the lobbyists, and leaving whatever reform left in those two bills to languish on the cutting room floor.

The cost of having no bill pass would be devastating to a country that is still reeling from the economic downturn that we is drowning us. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently did a study which predicts that the number of middle-class families without health insurance probably will jump 45 percent by 2019, drastically increasing the amount of medical care uncompensated by health care providers. Those costs would increase by at least 72 percent to as much as 128 percent over the next decade. Those of us with private insurance will most likely bear that burden. Families USA estimates that people with family health insurance coverage are already paying an additional $1,000 a year to help pay for treatment provided to the uninsured. In addition, the Johnson Foundation study estimated that individuals and family spending on premiums and out-of-pocket costs will increase between 46 and 68 percent over the next decade -- much faster than the overall economy is expected to grow.

Out-of-pocket expenses were destroying our family's finances, and my wife decision to ration her care for the sake of the kids could very easily be repeated by millions of Americans when they have to decide on whether to pay their premiums and out-of-pocket costs or do without and take their chances.

Granted, we are just mere constituents, with just the power to vote for our congressman offer small donations to their campaigns, and write impassioned letters. Apparently, we don't have the impact that the special interest lobbies have on them. To see past those group that have influenced them and come out of committee with a bill that will save the health and well being, if not the lives of those in this country that are waiting for health care reform would take just a touch more.....well......altruism.

Of course, we could still write our letters, stand out in the cold to protest, stop sending those small donations (which, for many candidates added up to quite a lot), and we could still say to them, "If you will not pass a bill to save us, if you will not do the duty entrusted to you by our votes and our faith in you, then we will not vote for you. (Remember the third category I mentioned in the first paragraph?)

It may not be the best thing for the insurance companies, but I have a feeling that they will survive, and without a bailout. I was impressed by one particular congressman from Orlando, that stood up and spoke out for reform, and although he was not the only one, his stand was duly noted, and you could tell that he felt good after he did, regardless of criticism the pressure of lobbyists.

And that brings me to my next point. There is a certain satisfaction that comes from doing the right thing. It lifts you up and sometimes beyond the pressures that often oppose us, like social pressures, finances and time constraints.

My sweet wife Monique came up with a philosophy back in the seventies when she was still in high school and had just lost her right eye, and was searching for good karma. She had deduced that the worst day of the week for many was Monday. You left the relaxed or the productive time at home to go back to work or school and the pressures that they bring. Letting each Monday fly by with the same attitude of dread or sadness just gets the week off to a poor start. Why not utilize the emotional lift of a charitable act, no matter how small "Just Because It's Monday". When I first met her I had to ask her why she had the letters JBIM on so many things and places in her life. She had found that if she took the time to sit and talk with a saddened student in the hallway, or make a small donation to a worthy cause, or just bring in bagels, cream cheese and coffee to work, Just Because It's Monday, gave lift to the day and even the week. You'd be surprised how contagious this concept can be, once folks realize that they have just made the world a better place, that there is someone, somewhere that will appreciate and be grateful for it, and that you have the ability to make yourself feel good, as well. Just Because It's Monday.

We are about to enter a fresh new decade, and leave a terrible one behind. Monique and I believe that this requires a fresh new attitude to get us past the hurdles that still stand before us. I have lived thru the Me Decade (and even the decade of "me - Al Franken") and we have just left the decade of the Weapons of Mass Deception. We propose that we get a fresh start, an uplifting start by trying to make 2010 the "Year of JBIM"

We just left the Christmas season, so wonderfully noted as the season for giving. For those you have studied the history, that attitude began when it included "Boxing Day" also known as the Feast of St. Stephen: the day that the churches emptied out the poor box and distributed the contents to all those in need. It has always impressed me as to how much that spirit lives on today, despite the commercialism the season also considers as part of the festivities. This year donations were down, and understandably, considering our current financial woes. Most assuredly, as in most years, donations and charitably acts will decrease sharply after the holiday season, despite the fact that some many people are still in need, including some people you see every day without knowing their pain.

It doesn't have to be that way. January 4 is a Monday, and every one who reads this could do something, no matter how small, to make this world a more civil place, and uplift yourself, as well, to make your week more productive and a little bit nicer. Just Because Its Monday."

And maybe the congressional committee can end their negotiations with the right bill on a Monday? Just Because?


A note for those who have written us asking about Monique's current fight to regain her eyesight:

Her plight has been taken up by the same team at the Bascom-Palmer Eye institute that did the bizarre eye-tooth implant a few months ago. They will attempt to take Monique's highly complicated remaining eye and replace the currently clouded over cornea with a new one from a suitable generous donor with retinal specialists onboard to see if they can regain some of her eyesight. It is a very difficult surgery, but we have been told that the possible benefits of a successful surgery now outweigh the risks to Monique. This may be her last chance.

We will keep you posted.