Media life and real life

Steve Kelman reports on some public servants who are unlikely to make the papers.

Shutterstock image.

Last week on CNN, I saw a story about a special late-night House hearing that had been held the evening before to grill Veterans Affairs Department managers about the Inspector General report on wait list problems at the VA Phoenix (and perhaps other) hospitals. Members were unable to contain anger and emotion. The gruesome drumbeat that Secretary Shinseki's "head" would have to "roll" -- which culminated in his May 30 resignation -- grew louder.

I worked at home that morning, because I had on my calendar to attend the citizenship ceremony in Boston's historic Faneuil Hall for the Peruvian-born wife (of four years) of a former student of mine at the Kennedy School with whom I've remained friends.

To get to Faneuil Hall, I needed to take my commuter rail train, run by the regional public transportation system, all the way into the last stop, North Station, rather than getting off in Cambridge as I usually do. That was fortuitous, because I was going to need to stop at the lost and found at North Station to check if by any chance the briefcase I had left on a bench at the Cambridge station the night before was there. I had been carrying both my gym bag (which I often do) and a big bag of bagels I had just bought (which I seldom do) as well as my briefcase, and almost at my stop, I noticed there was no briefcase next to me at my seat. (If faithful readers recall earlier blogs about lost items, the answer is, "Yes, I am a very absent-minded professor.")

The conductor helped me look around the train (I had changed seats after getting on), and then, shortly after I was to get off, I realized perhaps I had left the briefcase at the Cambridge station. The conductor thought for a second and then said, "You know, I think I saw a bag on the bench in Cambridge."

Was he going back to Boston on the same train once it had reached its destination, I quickly asked him? Yes, he replied. The train was about to leave my stop, but he quickly said: "Let me check on the bench when I come back to Cambridge. If I find it, I will deliver it to the lost and found at North Station."

No time to get a name or number.

So when I arrived the next morning at North Station, I was slightly nervous. But sure enough, the bag was in the lost and found.

I asked the woman at lost and found whether the conductor had left a name, and told her the train I had been on. He had not. By coincidence, though, another conductor interrupted and said he worked that same train. I gave him a description of the man, my business card, and a request for him to contact me. I would like to invite him for lunch or something at the Harvard Faculty Club.

Then I went to the citizenship ceremony, where my friend's wife and 277 other new Americans were naturalized. (Coincidentally, the conductor who helped me, judging by his accent, was an African immigrant.) As it happens, the former student, Ned Shamon, works for the Veterans Health Administration on hospital cost accounting and management improvement. I asked him (and his boss, who was also there) if people were talking much about the scandal, and whether it was affecting their jobs.

"No, not really," Ned answered. "We just need to go about our work and do everything we can to improve the system, just like we were doing before." His boss told me something about the eight different priority groups for veterans being served at VA hospitals, down to priority 8 (the classification he was in), which were veterans without any injury either service or non-service related, who could get free care at VA hospitals if there was space for them. Many, he said, used the hospitals just to get the very inexpensive prescription medications veterans can get. It sounded like the situation was slightly more complicated than the media accounts suggest.

I tell these stories of media life and real life not to bash the media. Their watchdog role is invaluable, and it is good they are on the lookout for misdeeds and shortcomings. I agree with those who say that media coverage is often unbalanced -- all the evidence of areas where the veterans hospital system is considered a model for healthcare, ahead of many private hospitals, gets completely forgotten in the white heat of scandal and the hunt for retribution -- but that's just the way things are, and not much can be done about it.

But my two experiences last week reminded me that we need to balance the media's laser focus on scandal and misdeed with the experiences of real life. A public servant again went out of his way to help a customer in need. Ned and his colleagues at the Veterans Health Administration in Bedford, Mass., are trying to do a good job helping veterans. As we watch media life, let's also remember real life.

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