give thanks

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The start of the holiday season doesn’t feel much like a holiday with the stress of travel to join friends and relatives in celebration and the pressure of shopping on Black Friday. Six weeks from now, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years will be history and one might question the sanity of packing too much stuff into such a small window of time. Fortunately, there are many things that may make each of us thankful.

Sports provide an opportunity to look for heroes or champions, whose accomplishments may lift our spirits and give us encouragement. Lois Gilmore is an elite athlete who is definitely not a household name. At age 80, she is a nationally ranked runner whose times are faster than most people, regardless of age. She began running after surviving cancer at age 60, continued to run after a stroke at age70 and races 50-60 times per year. In 2007, she was the USA Track and Field Masters athlete of the year after running a 26 minute 5K (about 8minutes and 20 seconds per mile). I’m thankful to have Ms. Gilmore as a role model. Most pro athletes abdicated that position a long time ago.

While the federal government is mired in partisan politics, we should be thankful for some of the work it has done regarding two killer, tobacco and alcohol. Aggressive education programs have decreased the number of smokers and people who drink and drive but I would be more thankful if our legislators would use funds dedicated to health education and prevention for that purpose and not siphon it off to prop up other programs.

Every day, millions of people in the United States willing smoke a cigarette that will increase their risk of dying suddenly by heart attack or stroke or potentially, slowly and painfully with cancer. That number is gradually decreasing as stop smoking education efforts continue and smoking in public places becomes increasingly difficult to do. Society bears the cost of smoking, not only because of the cost of caring for patients, but also because productive people are lost too early in their lives. Who knows what knowledge or joy they might have provided to their family and their community. While 20% of Americans still smoke, that equals more than 60 million people and with 20% of high school students smoking, tobacco companies have a new generation of customers in their pipeline and cancer centers have new potential patients in theirs.

Driving drunk isn’t socially acceptable, but more than 1.4 million people were arrested in 2008 for driving while impaired due to alcohol or narcotics. More than 11,000 people were killed in accidents involving a drunk driver. Lost in the statistics is the fact that each number is a living, breathing person who died. The good news is that the number of fatalities for youths under the age of 21 has fallen by more than 70% in the last 25 years. We should be thankful for as increase of the drinking age, for aggressive law enforcement and for public education programs.

Getting sick isn’t fair. People who live pristinely healthy lives develop cancer or suffer a stroke, while some bodies survive a lifetime of abuse and neglect. But with just a few breakthroughs in public health, like clean water, immunizations and antibiotics, people are living longer and more active lives. In1900, the average person expected to live 50 years. When Kennedy was elected president, that number rose to almost 70 (think of it as living 5 years past retirement). Today, a person should expect to live more than 78 years. Thankfully, our lives are enriched by people who have been given the chance to live longer.

In the rush of our holiday season, perhaps each of us can slow down and remember to enjoy the moments that are precious, the people around us who make us smile and the people we don’t know who make our lives better.

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