I'm reading Jane Leavy's biography of Mickey Mantle titled The Last Boy. It reminded me of his honesty and courage at the end of his life. It also reminded me of the disservice that was done to him by the medical field ignoring his alcoholism for so long. Once Mantle got sober after treatment for his alcoholism he frequently spoke of missed opportunities. Despite the accomplishment of Mantle and his family in increasing organ donations, the end of his life and his death provided one last lost opportunity.
The events of his final days are still vivid. His last news conference, announcing the organ donor program, the gathering of his teammates and Bob Costa's eulogy were poignant and hopeful. They connected the past to the present and gave a vision of progress for in the future. However touching, they were incomplete.
The time was right, the ingredients present, yet the catalyst was missing. The missing catalyst was the willingness of the medical team to directly acknowledge alcoholism and use that teachable moment to galvanize the medical field into awareness and action.
My most enduring moment of sadness was the news conference held by the head of the Baylor University Hospital surgical team. In a quote that belongs in the Health Care Hall of Shame, he said there is no doubt that Mantle's "lifestyle choices" contributed to his illness and death.
It was not "lifestyle choices" that brought Mantle to the surgeon's table. It was alcoholism; a chronic, progressive, terminal disease recognized as such by the American Medical Association in 1955. The same disease that is the cause of 25 percent of the admissions to general hospital beds nationwide. The same illness that costs New York State 1.3 million days of inpatient care and 720,000emergency room visits each year.
Cloaking alcoholism under the guise of "lifestyle choices" deprived Mantle of one last opportunity; to use his honesty about his alcoholism to change the way the medical field views and addresses alcoholism. Just like a fantasy baseball camp, I had my own fantasy news conference. In this fantasy the doctor said:
"Alcoholism played a major role in Mickey Mantle's death. In talking with Mickey we realized that of all the doctors he saw over all the years few, if any, screened for alcoholism. If any did, they did not know how to get him into appropriate care. In his memory and in memory of all the alcoholics we have treated for everything but their primary illness we ask the following: We call all physicians to invite their patients to talk about their drinking and to screen each patient they see for alcoholism. We are hoping this tragic early death of an American icon will inspire our felow physicians and medical institutions to overcome their discomfort and denial and provide these people with the care they need and deserve."
It need not be a fantasy.