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Originally published Friday, October 11, 2013 at 4:54 PM

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Guest: A health crisis on a plane and in our government shutdown

Faced with a medical emergency on a plane, everybody jumped in. On the ground, it’s a political fight, writes guest columnist Kathleen Bartholomew.

Special to The Times

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AS soon as the words echoed through the loudspeakers of the Boeing 737, I immediately regretted ordering the wine.

“If there is a nurse or physician on board, could you please ring your call light?”

I’m a nurse. I moaned internally as my apprehension level jumped to high alert. No need to ring, three flight attendants were huddled in the exit row. As I made my way up the aisle, I saw a man slumped over in the middle seat in his 60s, incontinent and unconscious.

The contrast between my flight and my country couldn’t be greater. Suspended in midair, we become acutely aware of our vulnerability and dependence on each other. Here, there were no rules that dictated who should receive medical care, and who was unworthy of care.

Contrast this with the situation on the ground, where House Republicans have shut down the federal government over providing health care for all through the Affordable Care Act.

On the plane, people immediately offered to help by moving seats and offering coats as pillows. From Superstorm Sandy to the floods of Colorado, Americans consistently come to the rescue, helping total strangers by donating money, clothes or first aid. No one checks political affiliation in these situations because it doesn’t matter. Our citizenship and responsibility to each other is spontaneous and admirable.

Inclusivity and compassion are in our nature. But I cannot help but notice that if we are not on a plane, or summoned to action by an in-your-face emergency, then the event horizon of “we” or “us” gets lost.

On the ground, the shell that contains us becomes so nebulous and vast that we cannot perceive its boundaries. This shift in perception radically affects what we say and do.

We argue incessantly about who has the right to be well, and who doesn’t — and who should pay for services. Fear mobilizes and discourse becomes polarized when we cannot see each others’ faces, let alone recognize one another as fellow passengers on this ship of state.

These faces belong to our neighbors, employees, teachers, mothers and lovers. Illnesses, disease and accidents reach beyond all race, wealth or education levels. Cancer alone is predicted to increase 45 percent by 2030, according to a September report from the Institute of Medicine. No one is exempt.

On the ground lies opportunity. Our companies are reportedly eliminating insurance coverage and dumping their employees into the new exchanges, or only hiring part-time workers to evade the new law.

Cynical demigods politicize and sabotage health care. With such blindness, our citizenship is not admirable: One million Washington state citizens need health insurance.

Why does this matter to us? If the citizens of Washington sign up for health coverage using the new exchange, then our state can achieve an unprecedented level of health and economic well-being, sharing not only the risks, but our resources.

It is all about perception. If we could only perceive the health of our fellow citizens as both a shared interest and a mutual responsibility — like we do in the air — Washington could truly set itself apart from the collective insanity. As of now, the health of our state citizens is nothing to brag about.

We need each other to make this work. After all, we are on the same plane. For a seat assignment call 855-WAFINDER or go to:

Kathleen Bartholomew is a registered nurse and author who lives in Friday Harbor.

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