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Dole Has Seen Health System From the Inside

September 25, 1993|SHERYL STOLBERG | TIMES MEDICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — To Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), reforming the U.S. health care system is much more than a simple question of public policy. It is a matter of deep personal interest, intertwined with his extensive experience not as a senator but as a patient.

Since having his prostate gland removed after a bout with cancer two years ago, Dole has become well-known on Capitol Hill as an advocate of early cancer detection. The 70-year-old Senate minority leader set up booths offering free screening tests at the GOP convention last year, and he hosts a support group for men who have had prostate cancer.

Dole learned his first difficult lesson about health insurance nearly half a century ago, as a young soldier who returned from World War II badly wounded. The year was 1945. Dole, who was 21, had braved enemy fire to save a fallen comrade. Explosives shattered his collarbone, right shoulder and upper arm, fractured a vertebra and shocked his spinal cord. Military doctors predicted that he would not survive. If he did, they said, he might never walk again.

He spent more than three years in hospitals, battling one setback after another. He suffered kidney stones and eventually lost his right kidney. He did learn to walk, but his right shoulder and arm were immobilized from his injuries. Back in his hometown of Russell, Kan., he learned of a Chicago surgeon named Hampar Kelikian who might be able to help him.

Kelikian, however, was in private practice, and Dole--whose medical care was paid for by the Army--did not have the money to see him. So his friends and neighbors pitched in, dropping dollars and nickels and dimes in cigar boxes scattered across town. On Friday, during an interview with Times reporters and editors, the senator recounted the story:

"In this one instance after World War II, most of the good doctors, of course, wanted to get out of the service, and I wanted to see another doctor, so people in my hometown raised $1,800 to help me see Dr. Kelikian in Chicago, a famous Armenian bone-and-joint surgeon. I think he operated on me seven times, and never let me pay him. He'd lost a brother in the war, so he had a very warm feeling about veterans."

Dole never fully recovered; his right arm remained very badly damaged, and his right hand never regained much strength or feeling. The experience, he acknowledged, has colored his views about the health care debate.

"I think any of us look back at where we came from and what we may have been subject to in our lives," he said. "Certainly we have a certain amount of sensitivity. I've had a lot of health care in my life."

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