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Bernie Sanders Is Missing a Great Opportunity to Lead on Health Care

His heart attack can still be an amazing teachable moment.

NurPhoto / Getty Images
NurPhoto / Getty Images

Bernie Sanders has just become a statistic: one of the 790,000 Americans who have a heart attack each year. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in this country, at a time when health care remains voters’ top concern and dominates the political debate.  

So when one of the one leading contenders has a heart attack, it has the potential to be an amazing teachable moment. Imagine Bernie Sanders, still recovering from heart surgery and speaking directly to the American people about the need to change the conversation on health care — from health care financing and insurance debates to our actual health.

He could have put a spotlight on the fact that 75 percent of our health care spending goes toward the treatment of conditions that can be prevented, like heart disease and diabetes. And with the authority of his own example, he could have called on Americans to take action by examining our lifestyle choices and realizing how much power we have to make healthy changes in our lives that can lead to better health outcomes. 

Instead, he squandered the opportunity. In the days after his campaign issued a statement that Sanders had experienced chest pain during a Las Vegas event and undergone a heart procedure for a blocked artery, the full extent of the senator’s condition was shrouded in secrecy. Campaign aides declined to answer questions about his condition. We learned that doctors had inserted two stents, and that the Sanders campaign had canceled all appearances and events until further notice. It was only after “three days of near silence,” as The New York Times put it, that Sanders’s doctors announced that the 78-year-old candidate had indeed suffered a heart attack. Upon leaving the hospital, the candidate himself tweeted, “I want to thank the doctors, nurses, and staff at the Desert Springs Hospital Medical Center for the excellent care that they provided. After two and a half days in the hospital, I feel great, and after taking a short time off, I look forward to getting back to work.”

The bunker-mode secrecy, the refusal to answer questions and the suggestion that someone who has suffered a heart attack can simply power through it is part of the American mythos. Remember Hillary powering through her walking pneumonia going to a fundraiser in her exhausted state, making the “deplorables” comment that cost her so much? 

Imagine, again, how Sanders might have responded. Embracing what happened, owning it, taking enough time off from the campaign trail for his body to fully heal after what was, after all, a major medical event. And from that place, starting a national conversation that goes beyond Medicare for All vs. single payer vs. public option vs. private health insurance.  

As Trevor Noah said on “The Daily Show,” “You know who I blame for this happening in the first place? Iowa. That’s who I blame. Yeah. Stop making candidates eat that shit. No more fried hot dogs. From now on, only fried salads.”

Noah was joking, but he was also raising a very important point: The junk we’re increasingly eating — whether we’re on the campaign trail or not — is having a big impact on our hearts. So does the sleep we get or the exercise we don’t get and the cumulative stress of our days. 

On Tuesday, Sanders told reporters he had been “dumb” to ignore recent symptoms, including feeling “more fatigued than I usually have been” as he kept a full schedule of rallies and events. “I should have listened to those symptoms,” he said. “So if there’s any message that I hope we can get out there, it’s that I want people to pay attention to their symptoms. And you know, when you are hurting, when you’re fatigued, when you have a pain in your chest, listen to it.”

That was a start for broadening the conversation. But if Sanders wants to truly seize the moment, he will have to do a lot more.

He will have to speak in detail about the conditions in his life that led to the fatigue and chest pain and precipitated his heart attack — his sleep, his diet, his exercise, his stress. Instead of promising and re-promising to release his medical records (as he did Tuesday, again without giving a deadline), he could make them public immediately. And he could share any preventative steps he has or has not taken: artery scans, cholesterol screening, a CRP test (a simple blood test that measures inflammation, one of the risk factors for coronary artery disease), as a way to educate the American public on what, beyond lifestyle, is available to us to prevent a heart attack.

Sanders had an opportunity — and he still does — to push beyond the stale health care talking points, change the narrative and perhaps help prevent thousands of heart attacks by talking about what he has done so far and what he plans to do differently going forward. 

The truth is, there is no health care finance answer to our health care crisis. Only a change in the way we eat, the way we sleep, the way we move and the preventative medical measures we take can make a real dent in the crisis we’re facing that is destroying so many lives. 

I hope Sanders realizes this incredible opportunity before the moment passes, takes hold of the conversation, and invites the American people to make changes in the way they live before it’s too late.

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