Med student R.I. senator's personal guest at Obama speech

Lauren Goddard MD'11 found herself rubbing elbows with the family and friends of some of Washington's most powerful political players last Tuesday, as she watched President Barack Obama's first address to Congress from the Visitor's Gallery of the House of Representatives.

"I kept nudging people and saying 'Look there's Senator Feinstein, look there's Nancy Pelosi, and no one was phased because they were probably related to these people," Goddard said.

A self-described "political geek," Goddard attended the speech as a personal guest of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

"I thought the speech was great in that it exceeded my expectations," she said. "Obama set out very specific goals and made the people a part of those goals and plans - he makes the public feel invested in the process."

For Goddard, Obama's focus on affordable health care had a particular resonance. After graduating from Barnard College in 2004, Goddard was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, a gastrointestinal disease for which there is no known cure.

"I took health insurance for granted for my whole life, but then I became too old to be covered by my mother's insurance policy, and I didn't have health insurance for a long time," Goddard said. "I realized the contradiction that I was a med student, and yet I didn't have health insurance."

Goddard met Whitehouse early last month at a community dinner in Warwick that focused on health care reform. The dinner was attended by about 200 people who spoke about their struggles in receiving health care, said Alex Swartsel, communications director in Whitehouse's office.

"Every one of the stories presented at the dinner was compelling," Swartsel said. "The interesting thing about Lauren is that she is a medical student as well as a patient. As a student of medicine she knows that if you are scheduled to take medication regularly, you take it, but as a patient who struggled to afford health care â€&brkbar; she is going to have a hard time finding affordable health care."

Whitehouse has held eight community dinners throughout the state since his election to office in 2006. Last year, Mike Tracy, a cancer survivor who struggled to pay his health care premiums, was the Whitehouse's guest to the State of the Union Address.

"These meetings present an invaluable opportunity that is unique to Rhode Island, in that it gets the senator out to the community to hear directly from the people on what issues matter to them," Swartsel said. "That's just exactly what democracy is all about, this chance to directly engage with elected officials."

While Goddard said Obama's speech left her feeling positive that changes will be made, she said she remains frustrated by the lack of health care reforms in the past eight years under the Bush administration.

"There is so much that needs to change in our health care system right now," she said. "For example, we need to improve our electronic health care records, which are pretty spotty right now. There needs to be a standardized, unified electronic system between primary care doctors and specialists."

Goddard also pointed to the shortage of primary care providers, adding that currently there is more incentive to choose a specialty rather than go into primary care.

Goddard's interest in health care began when she studied abroad in Mali during her senior year of college. After seeing the lack of health care education within the communities she visited, Goddard realized she "wanted to help people achieve the best level of health that they could possibly get."

After another trip abroad, Goddard became sick as a result of intestinal parasites. The experience, she said, most likely exacerbated her Crohn's disease. It was then that she realized she should focus her attention on U.S. health care.

"It upset me at first that I would not be able to work as a physician abroad," said Goddard, who needs to remain in the U.S. to receive better treatment for her condition. "However, especially after experiencing problems with your own health coverage, you realize that there are Third World issues facing us in this country."

As Goddard continues to advocate for health care reform while in medical school, Swartsel said she and others like her will continue to inspire those in similar situations.

"I think people in Rhode Island can look at someone like Lauren Goddard or Mike Tracy and say, 'Wow they are just like me, they have the same kinds of concerns and worries and hopes that I have,"' Swartsel said.

Goddard said those who are critical of government-directed health care reform should realize that it is the only way to bring about change.

"Some people are skeptical of government involvement, but I do not think those worries are a good enough reason not to try to make reforms," she said.

By:  Brian Mastroianni
Source: Brown Daily Herald