Published December 5, 2014
In the above photograph, I am accompanied by one of my favourite people in the world, Dr. Haukur S. Magnússon, my paternal grandfather and my namesake (I had to make sure not to get a doctorate degree, so folks would be able to tell us apart). It was taken a couple of Christmases ago, in-between bouts of us eating, drinking and being merry. What a time we had.
Dr. Haukur is 82 years old. He became a doctor in 1961, and spent the brunt of his career working as a General Practitioner, helping thousands of humans overcome illness and injury. A healing hand.
His late wife, my beloved grandmother Erla, worked as a nurse her whole life, helping thousands of humans overcome illness and injury. A healing hand.
And their daughter, my aunt Jónína, currently works as a nurse. Helping thousands of humans overcome illness and injury. A healing hand.
Growing up, I would listen intently as they discussed their work. It fascinated me. It still does. Stories of Dr. Haukur’s early days serving as a GP in East Iceland, when he would hike through mountains of snow, dragging his medical kit behind him on a sleigh, responding to medical emergencies in remote villages. My grandmother’s tales of purposing a soup ladle to spoon tapeworm out of patients’ stomachs. My aunt’s tales of Saturday night Emergency Room chaos.
I developed a great respect for our medical professionals as a child, and it has only grown in later years.
My grandparents were of the generation that built up the healthcare system that we Icelanders have often prided ourselves of. They did unselfish, often thankless pioneer work for the benefit of their nation. I imagine they were optimistic as they witnessed various progresses in the field through the years, as we devised ways of curing once-deadly diseases and constructed an impressive healthcare network that spread around the island.
My aunt Jónína has also spent her career as a nurse doing unselfish, often thankless work. The difference, perhaps, lies in the fact that she has been doing that work at a time when it seems like the healthcare system built by my grandparents’ generation has entered a period of slow but sure disintegration; as funding has stalled or been cut, as the infrastructure has started slowly rotting due to lack of interest from the officials we elected to maintain it.
My aunt, the nurse, has often felt pressed to work ludicrous amounts of overtime, not sleeping for days, because there simply aren’t enough nurses to go around. Because the pay isn’t attractive, because the working conditions can border on abhorrent. Because reasons.
As journalist Gabríel Benjamín’s illuminating feature reveals, Iceland’s healthcare system is teetering on the brink of tragedy after years of governmental neglect and austerity measures. While it paints a grim picture of the situation, some of the people he spoke to also provide a glimpse of hope that we may yet turn things around.
This is heady, important stuff. Go read the feature. Assume a position. Demand action.
We owe it to those who came before us, and those who will follow.