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Paralyzed Bolivia Peace Corps Staff Physician Bob LeBow Struggles to be Useful
Paralyzed Bolivia Peace Corps Staff Physician Bob LeBow Struggles to be Useful
Paralyzed Doc Struggles to be Useful
BALA CYNWYD, Pa. (AP) - June 25, 2003 — It is Dr. Bob LeBow's sad fate to be trapped on four wheels when he spent so much of his life unbridled on two.
He rode his bike all over the world - in Bolivia, where he served in the Peace Corps.; to the villages of Swaziland and the heights of Tibet; down the rural backroads of Idaho, where he helped build a remarkable medical clinic.
Tested by tragedy, he became a national advocate of universal health insurance. He distilled all his passion into a book that told about patients who suffered because they could not afford a doctor's care, or a pharmacist's remedies.
The book was published last July. A week later, his bike betrayed him.
Now he lives at his son's home in the Philadelphia suburbs, a quadriplegic caught up in the same health care system he railed against. Encumbered by his wheelchair, connected to a ventilator, he is depressed by the prospect of a life in which he cannot be of use to others.
But that is impossible, say the people who know and love him. They say Bob LeBow still touches lives as he did 32 years ago, when he, his wife and two sons arrived in Nampa, Idaho.
There, a charismatic young man named Terry Reilly had set out to tutor the children of migrant farm workers - and ended up opening a health clinic, instead.
The problem, Reilly found, was that his students were often too sick to make progress. So he secured a $271,000 federal grant for the new Community Health Clinics.
LeBow had returned from the Peace Corps and had earned a master's degree in public health when he heard about Nampa through an old classmate. He was enticed by rural life, and by the opportunity to treat the needy.
Dr. Bob was soft-spoken to the point of mumbling; he had a kind face, with a perpetual five o'clock shadow and glasses often slightly askew. His sweaters always seemed to have holes at the elbows. He hated meetings and often fell asleep during them (though he had an uncanny ability to awaken and contribute when his turn came). In his time off, LeBow traveled to developing countries as a consultant to help build their health care systems. He was mentor to dozens of doctors. He emphasized the importance of preventive medicine, of expanded access to care, of treating patients with dignity and respect.
Dr. Jonathan Bowman, the clinic's assistant medical director, recalls LeBow's message to doctors: "You're actually part of the therapeutic process. You're helping people get better by showing them you care."
He practiced what he preached, and patients adored him.
"He was sensitive to the mind, body and spirit. He listened carefully," said LeBow's office mate, Dr. Laura Tirrell.
Rosie Reilly recalls how her husband and LeBow "just bounced ideas off each other ... and there was nothing that was not doable."
They delivered babies. They opened an in-house pharmacy. They hired a health educator. They established programs for victims of sexual abuse, for teenagers, for the elderly. They opened more satellite clinics. They improvised - when floors sagged, they used jacks to prop them up.
By 1986, Terry Reilly was a rising political figure; he served a term in the state Senate, a Democrat elected from a Republican stronghold, and he wanted to be lieutenant governor.
He was campaigning on April 10 when the single-engine plane taking him from Coeur d'Alene to Idaho Falls plummeted into a hillside, killing him and two others.
Three months before, on Jan. 10, Bob and wife Gail's younger son, Tommy, was driving just a mile from home when his car hit a patch of black ice and skidded into a telephone pole. The "soul mate" who had joined Bob on so many bike trips was 16. "Tommy's death crystalized for me a goal which I had more or less unconsciously strived for before: to alleviate suffering as much as possible. Now it became a conscious personal goal," Bob LeBow would write in a newspaper column seven years later. First, he testified in favor of a mandatory seat-belt law in Idaho (Tommy wasn't wearing one); it passed narrowly. Then, he ran for the Legislature - three times, unsuccessfully.
Universal health insurance was his great issue. He had seen too much suffering - a 64-year-old woman with diabetes and high blood pressure who only took her medication twice or three times a week, because it was all she could afford; a farmworker who could not afford a $100 payment to a specialist, and went home, only to be diagnosed months later with tuberculosis.
This was his message, told to voters, told at meetings across the Northwest, told in his capacity as president of Physicians for a National Health Program, told in his book, "Health Care Meltdown": The current health care system is an expensive failure that serves only the insurance companies and pharmaceutical and health-care industries.
To those who said that his solution - taxpayer-financed national health insurance - meant health care would be rationed, he retorted that it already WAS rationed. The poor were the ones who were denied medicine.
Last July 25, the book was finished, and he carried a copy for an old friend as he rode his bike to work. He was about three miles from home when the brake calipers got caught in the front wheel, sending him flying.
He was wearing a helmet, of course, but he landed face first, breaking his neck. When he stopped breathing, his brain was denied oxygen, and was injured as well.
LeBow's recovery took him from Boise to Craig Hospital in Denver and finally to Bala Cynwyd, where Ted, his wife Jennifer and their three daughters have turned their home into a hospital for one man.
Bob LeBow had plenty of insurance. But even so, it may not be enough. In less than a year, his care (24 hours a day, seven days a week) has eaten up more than half of the million-dollar lifetime cap on his health insurance.
He is in rehab now. He is learning to use his chin to play computer games, and to draw with a pen in his mouth. These may seem to be small steps, but 10 months ago doctors saw a man whose heart had stopped repeatedly, who couldn't swallow, who struggled with a few words; this, they said, is probably as good as it will get.
"It's been very tough," Bob LeBow says. Sometimes, he's depressed. "I'd like to live as long as I can be of use to somebody," he says.
Otherwise, "I'd rather just check out."
But his spirits are raised by the success of "Health Care Meltdown." Twelve thousand copies have been sold, and Alan C. Hood & Co. will publish a hardback edition in mid-July.
He has been buoyed, as well, by a loving celebration in Nampa.
Staffers of what is now known as Terry Reilly Health Services were devastated by the accident. They could not bring themselves to touch LeBow's desk, to move his papers.
Dr. Erwin Teuber, the clinic's executive director, thought his staff needed to turn the page. For one thing, the clinic needed LeBow's desk - it has grown to a $9.3 million a year operation, treating more than 18,000 patients in 10 locations.
- So in late May, 150 people congregated at the clinic's newly christened Dr. Bob LeBow Conference Room. With Bob on the phone, they sang "Happy Birthday" (he would turn 63 on June 16). They presented him with the first Bob LeBow Community Health Award.
And they spoke excitedly of the first Bob LeBow Classic Bike Tour.
On June 14, 232 cyclists pedaled across the Idaho countryside, to clinics LeBow helped build, past fields and mountains he had traversed so many times. Their purpose was his dream: to fund health care for the poor.
More than 2,100 miles away, Gail LeBow put the No. 1 race number at the foot of Bob's bed, tangible evidence that though he can no longer ride a bike, he can still move mountains.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
Last Updated: Jun 25, 2003