At a time when Congress’s approval ratings hover between lice and boils; when our national motto has degraded from “E Pluribus Unum” to “Fear and Loathing”; when we are reminded every day of what doesn’t function in Washington, here is my favorite Christmas story. It’s a reminder that government can work properly, and that public service can change – even save – lives. Also, that the people who handle constituent casework for members of Congress are often unsung heroes.
On Dec. 21, 2007, my congressional office on Long Island received an urgent call from a constituent. The doctors at a local hospital were waiting for the arrival of a five-year-old boy from Peru named Sebastian. Sebastian had a life-threatening brain tumor and the docs had volunteered to perform surgery. All he needed was an emergency medical visa.
Sebastian’s family lived a distance from the U.S. Embassy in Peru. They made their way but arrived just as the embassy was closing and were told no appointments were available until it reopened after Christmas — five days later. According to Sebastian’s physicians, that would be too late. He would be in no position to fly. Or even worse.
My caseworkers briefed me on the situation, and I arranged a call to the U.S. embassy while Sebastian’s family waited outside the gates. I’m not going to say that the embassy agreed instantly to help. It took several conversations and some cajoling, including at one point the suggestion that I would do a press conference at its gates. (Actually, there was no way I could have commandeered a government plane or even purchased an economy class ticket to Lima, and I’m pretty sure the embassy staff knew that. But they also may have known that when you share a media market with Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Voting rights week for Democrats (again) Kelly takes under-the-radar approach in Arizona Senate race Hundreds attend mass funeral for victims of Bronx apartment building fire MORE, you learn how to make a point.)
After some give and take, the embassy opened, the visa was issued, and Sebastian and his family booked flights.
On Christmas Day, my staff (including a Spanish-speaking caseworker) and I visited Sebastian at the home of his relative. We brought gifts. We sat with him on the floor, rolled miniature cars, read picture books. But for me, Sebastian wasn’t the gravity in the room. It was his mother, who stood over us, eyes inescapably heavy with fear and uncertainty.
Three days later, doctors removed Sebastian’s tumor and reconstructed a part of his skull with titanium mesh.
This week marks the 14th Christmas since Sebastian’s initial surgery. On Friday, he visited the bookstore I own on Long Island. He’s 19 years old. He plays video games and reads books and spends as much time on WhatsApp as any teenager. I wish I could say he has fully recovered, but he hasn’t. He suffers through periodic medical episodes and has returned to chemo. Still, he told me, he’s getting used to it, his nausea is manageable, and he is thinking about college. It’s a rough go, but he’s alive.
He’s alive because the U.S. embassy reconsidered a decision and reopened its doors.
He’s alive because doctors and medical staff at a Long Island hospital performed the surgery that saved his life — and refused to accept payment.
He’s alive because I had caseworkers who refused to go home at 5 p.m. on a long holiday weekend and continued to push every button they could including working on Christmas.
He’s alive because America can be a good and decent country that leads the world in one standard we rarely, if ever, see in the statistics: the convergence of technology and humanity. We save lives because we lead in both science and spirit.
You can argue whether or not it was a Christmas miracle, but surely it was a miracle that occurred at Christmas.
The mantra in my congressional office (I still wear it emblazoned on a plastic band around my wrist) was the word: “One.” I’d say to my team: “If you are in politics and public service to save the world, you will fail. One person can’t save the world, and you will descend quickly into fatigue and resentment. But you’re a congressional staffer because it gives you the power to save one life at a time, there’s no better line of work.”
I can sense the Scrooges, the cynics and “America-Firsters” shaking their heads and muttering: “Why did a kid from Peru get free health care? What about us?” I agree. The National Brain Tumor Society estimates that over 13,000 children in the U.S. are living with a primary brain tumor. Can we at least agree not to cast aside a single one?
To those of any political persuasion who believe that Sebastian’s life was worth saving on Christmas of 2014, Merry Christmas in 2021.
Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.