Leonard Neff (my dad), the original empowered health care consumer

Monday, June 3, 2013 19:39 | Filled in Personal Responsibility

My father, Leonard Neff,  the original empowered health care consumer, died 7 years ago of pancreatic cancer. But he successfully fought, and won, against previous diagnoses of lung cancer and prostate cancer.

Despite being a physician who should have known better, Dad wasn’t so great at taking care of his own health in some ways. He could not, or would not, quit smoking — thus, the lung cancer. He never met a dessert he didn’t like, or a gym that he did, until he discovered water aerobics late in life — about age 75.

But he knew how to navigate the health system. When I developed crossed eyes as a toddler, I was whisked into an operating room as soon as I was old enough to tolerate general anesthesia. When my sisters and I had developed one too many sore throats, we were scheduled for tonsillectomies, as was routine in 1961. The hospital administrator insisted we stay overnight — my father insisted that we would be recovering at home that night. Voila! Outpatient surgery for the first time ever in Westchester County, New York, years before it became the norm for many operations.

When my great aunt Esther developed a mysterious cancer whose source no one could identify, her doctor at the HMO insisted she have surgery. But Esther was 90 years old at the time and dad felt that surgery was too risky. So he insisted she see another specialist outside of the HMO system to, and pay for it out of pocket. The new doctor agreed with dad, and Esther received radiation therapy instead. She experienced a better quality of life with the time she had left than she would have if she’d been bedbound, recovering from surgery.

My father was a product of his times, a man who loved his work and made his patients his first priority, often when I wished he would choose his family first. But while he lived, I learned some powerful lessons from him about getting the health care you deserve.

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