To the heartfelt chorus of praise, respect and admiration for a great American hero, Senator John McCain, I have to humbly add my memories from the time while I was the president/CEO of Phoenix Children’s Hospital almost 20 years ago.
Each year, leadership from the children’s hospitals across the country would travel to Washington to meet with their Congressional delegations on issues facing children’s health. Some representatives and senators would make time to meet with us; others delegated the task to staff.
First, if Senator McCain was in town, he would always meet with me. Contrast that with a freshman representative who couldn’t find the time so he sent a green staffer who didn’t even follow health care. The aide sheepishly admitted as we started our meeting, “I usually follow labor and manufacturing and am just learning about health care. Before we start, could you remind me of the difference between Medicare and Medicaid?” I knew then that this would be a very short conversation.
Second, Senator McCain always understood the issues in healthcare and was aware of pending or proposed legislation. He gave us his undivided attention during those meetings despite hundreds of other pressing issues and challenges that demanded his time and focus. Remember that this was during the time when he was ramping up for his first run at the presidency in 2000.
His staff member who followed health care was one of the brightest, best informed aides we met on the Hill. She kept us apprised of the status of important issues and respectfully used our team at the children’s hospital as a resource to better understand the impact of various proposals on the children of Arizona. I soon learned that the quality of Congressional staffers reflected the wisdom and care of the senators and representatives they worked for.
My final memory is a more personal one that gave me a glimpse of Senator McCain as father. One year we were escorted into his conference room and noticed his youngest son Jimmy was asleep on the coach. Senator McCain apologized and explained that he has just flown in late the night before from Phoenix to spend some time with Dad. While we encouraged him to let Jimmy sleep, Senator McCain was already nudging him to wake up. “Son, you need to wake up. Dad has important people who are here to meet with me,” he firmly said. Jimmy quickly obliged without any hesitation or push back. It struck me that Senator McCain had Jimmy in his office not just so he could spend time with him. He wanted him to understand service and the importance of the work Dad was doing on behalf of the American people.
I only met with Senator McCain three times, but they were three of the most important, personally significant meetings I had during my tenure at Phoenix Children’s. He cared deeply about issues affecting children and healthcare, so I was not at all surprised by one of his final, most courageous votes on the floor of the Senate. America has lost both a great hero and a steadfast advocate for improving health care for all citizens.