Dr. Deb Harper believes a stronger middle class will emerge from the recession and help heal the economic crisis. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Dr. Deb Harper believes a stronger middle class will emerge from the recession and help heal the economic crisis. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Words for an ailing nation

Sound advice is often the best medicine during troubled times

Dr. Deb Harper, a Spokane pediatrician, did her early medical training in inner-city Chicago, where she looked for, and found, resilience in even the most desperate of patients.

And from the beginning of her pediatric career in the early 1980s to the present, she has worked on behalf of abused and neglected children.

Harper’s belief in the power of children and adults to survive amid cruelty and chaos makes her a self-described Pollyanna, the fictional character known for her upbeat spirit.

But Harper embodies Pollyanna-attributes that are often overlooked: truth-telling and a creative spin on the routine world.

In a recent interview, Harper, 55, shared her creative spin on our economic crisis. Here’s an excerpt:

•The housing market was too crazy. It felt to me like tulip mania – that great bubble in Holland in the (1600s). People were bidding on tulip futures. There were tons of people who never even held this tulip bulb in their hand. Someone finally said this doesn’t seem like the basis for an economy. And it popped.

•My mother grew up on a farm in Manitoba during the Depression. My grandfather had to sell a cow for a nickel once, because he couldn’t afford to feed it and didn’t want to shoot it. I’m going to flip forward to my sons who say, “How come grandma always saves the ribbons and the wrapping paper?”

•We weren’t rich people, but my parents both always had jobs. Did we always get what we wanted? No. Was that always because they couldn’t afford it? No. Starting in third grade, each of us had to start our own college fund. It was the water we swam in. Education was going to be our highest priority.

•On the island of Kauai in Hawaii, there has been a long sociological study that started in the 1950s. When they started, Kauai had a huge poverty rate. About a third of the people growing up in this poverty did enormously well. What they discovered was that girls tend to be more resilient than boys. We don’t know why.

Children who liked to read did better than children who didn’t. I don’t know if that has to do with the power of story or the power of coming up with your own narrative of how your life is going to progress. Children whose parents weren’t divorced did better.

And children who had an important job – the kid who wove palm leaves together into place mats and could sell them and bring some money into the home – did better.

•I made sure our kids had chores and jobs.

•The current health care situation is a mess. If you lose your job, you lose your health insurance. If you lose your health insurance and something bad happens to you, you will go bankrupt. Do I think health care reform can solve some of the financial insanity? I do.

•There’s a Harvard health economist, David Cutler, and he asks, “What are you willing to pay to not have to go back to 1963 medicine?” My husband, for instance, before the age of 60, had two hip replacements, two cataract replacements and then he ruptured his Achilles’ tendon and had that fixed.

At one point, he was asking the surgeon, “Back in the day before you did it this cool way, what did they do for an Achilles’ tendon?” I said, “Back in that day, you would be a blind, crippled man in a wheelchair. You would not have been pushing your car and rupturing your Achilles’ tendon. You are lucky.”

•We have to look at what we value. The people in Oregon did a really interesting process in the ’90s. They had grassroots meetings and asked “What should we pay for? Given that the bucket will be empty, what is the first thing we pay for and what is at the bottom of that bucket?” That was an important process, and one that most of our country hasn’t been willing to do yet.

•What can society learn about healing an economy from how healing works in medicine? Our patients think the antibiotic we gave them, or the surgery we did for them, healed them. And sometimes it did, but what it really did was give their body time enough to heal itself.

So how does this relate to the larger microorganism – America? I think individuals and communities, if we give them the time, will find ways to heal themselves. And they will be ways that are completely surprising.

•The Wall Street Journal had a little map showing where all these former CEOs were in prison. That was very interesting. Will it level the insanity? Will it give the middle class the chance to re-establish themselves as the great strength of our country? I really hope so.

•What will our country look like 10 years from now? “She who look in crystal ball eat a lot of glass.” My husband says that all the time.

We will have health-care access for all. Certainly our use of petrochemicals will be down, because they will have become too expensive. There will be fewer McMansions, because they aren’t going to be sustainable on the secondary market when it’s time to sell your home. People will move more into towns of the Spokane size and out of cities of the I-5 corridor size.

•The future is with communities of our size, because we’re livable. You can get to where you need to get more easily. Spokane will have a light rail system and an efficient bus system and workable bike paths that are actually connected.

•We’ll go back to the moon. I needed to throw that in.

•We’re lucky we can look back for several thousand years and see how humans have had horrible declines in their ability to make a living and death everywhere and yet how resilient they were. We are all descended from those survivors. We’re not descended from people who died in childhood. We are descended from people who made it.

•I get to see at least 20 people a day who are doing their best to nurture their children. I get to see babies in the first minute of love. There is a depth of caring between parents and their children that gives me great faith.

I work with child abuse and some really unfortunate situations, but when our community works to strengthen our parents and their ability to nurture children, it makes a huge difference. They are the next generation. We need them to be descended from strong people, too.

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