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Thoughts from a Second Trip to the White House

About a week ago, I received an email from my editor at BlogHer: could I go to the White House for a meeting on Tuesday?  I checked my calendar, sent in my security details, and spent the weekend reading up on the issues surrounding the Affordable Care Act.  I had another big project I was putting to bed at the same time, so perhaps my attention was focused on finishing that, but I didn’t feel nervous at all.

Until Monday.

I woke up with my stomach flip flopping around.  Tums-munching-yoga-can’t-help-this flipping around.  I put my other project to bed around 10 pm that night, and without a distraction, the flip flopping only increased until it felt like I had a trout at the end of the line inside my stomach, dying frantically on a pier.

On Tuesday, I woke up, the fish still strongly fighting his swim to the bright white light. (I have to assume that while humans walk into the light when they die, that fish either swim or flop there.)  I went to yoga, came home to have a yogurt, read some last documents I wanted to get through, and then headed downtown.  If you recall last time, I had to pee quite badly AND was nerve-wrackingly late.  This time I left an insane amount of time to get down there so when I hit Meridian Hill and saw that I had almost two hours until the meeting, I said to myself, “this is what it feels like to not be strangled by your clock.”  It was a strange, wonderful feeling.  I wish I were better about time and could experience that more often.

I hung out at Josh’s office for a bit and then he drove me over to the White House, by which I mean he dropped me off by the park and I felt like a little kid getting out of her dad’s car on the way to the party.

As I went through security and grabbed my visitor badge and headed past the guard into the West Wing, I kept saying to myself, “these people are just people.  They are human, just like me.  This is their job, I do my job.  But at the end of the day, they are all simply jobs and we are all simply people.”  It’s a nice little mantra.  The reality is that while I’m a Juddhist in practice (you know, a Jewish Buddhist), I am a Quaker in mentality.  I don’t believe in elevating people in importance any more than I believe in demeaning people (aren’t they just two sides of the same coin).  Though sometimes I forget that and get all ga-ga, like… you know… being around people in the White House.

I sat in the waiting room with the ten other women and thought to myself, “this building is just a building.  It is no different sitting in your home or sitting in the dentist’s office or sitting in the West Wing.  They are all simply buildings made of the same materials such as concrete and brick and mortar.”

This mantra didn’t really work.

Actually, do you know who it was nicest to see there?  Sarah, who works in the Office of Digital Strategy.  It was more meaningful to me, personally, to see her.  I believe that if Dorothy had the chance to go back to Oz, she’d want to see the Scarecrow ten times more than she’d want to see the Great and Powerful Oz.  I mean, yeah, the wizard was cool (okay, so he turned out to be not so powerful, but you know what I mean), but the Scarecrow had been with her on the journey.  And last year at the Women’s Summit, Sarah was the person who was with us the entire day, who communicated with us beforehand and afterward.

So one of my favourite parts of the day was talking with Sarah before the meeting.  I told her that the Wolvog had played President Obama in the school play last month, a parade of famous Americans spanning about 400 years of history all coming together for a ball at the White House (please don’t ask how Betsy Ross and Michelle Kwan could both be at the White House as the same time).  I discovered the night before that he had outgrown his button-down shirt, so the Wolvog’s Barack Obama was casual in a navy blue polo shirt.  The ChickieNob wanted the part of Michelle Obama, but it went to another girl, a fact that she will be thankful for years from now when she realizes how creepy that would be to be married to her brother in the school play.

And then it was time to go inside the Roosevelt Room.

I loved seeing the East Wing last time, but maybe it was more special to be in the West Wing because it’s generally not accessible to the public.  Or because it’s a space of action; where policy is discussed and created vs. the other side of the building which leans heavier towards entertaining.  My heart was pounding entering the Roosevelt Room, a room that comes with an enormous history in tow.  It was the former presidential office.  Think of the meetings that have happened in that place.

Our name cards were already set up around the table, and my seat was directly in front of the door which was directly across from the Oval Office.  Meaning, the brown door opened into the hallway and on the opposite wall of the hallway was the white door of the Oval Office.  I was about twenty feet away from the Oval Office the whole time.  Heady!

But think about all the people who have sat in those chairs.  All the presidents.  All the staff members.  All the visiting heads of state from various countries.  Think about what has taken place in that room, the enormous moments.  I know I said it’s just a building, just like every other building, but it was as if my inner teenager was holding her hand over my inner Quaker’s mouth, silencing her for the moment.

Being in that room was like stepping into the Sistine Chapel.  I was obviously in the Vatican to see the chapel, knew I would encounter it at some point as I walked through the building, but when I stepped inside and tilted my head back to stare at the ceiling, I was dumbfounded that I was in that space, seeing it with my own eyes.  That I was across the world, standing under the hand of G-d.  And that was what it was like to sit down in the Roosevelt Room.  I knew that was where we were ending up for the meeting, was well aware that I would encounter it while in the West Wing, but I sat down dumbfounded, not believing I was seeing that space with my own eyes.

That sliver of door frame behind me?  That’s the brown door through which you can get to the Oval Office.

The topic for the roundtable discussion was the Affordable Care Act, a topic near and dear to my heart both as a health writer (I think after writing Navigating the Land of If and a bunch of articles, I qualify as a health writer, right?) and as an average US citizen.

We watched an episode of House last week (we’re on the second season!) where House told a patient without insurance that he was dying, but he wasn’t going to put down the diagnosis in his file because it would be a pre-existing condition stopping him from ever getting insurance.  The boy ran out of the examination room to go get insurance before returning for the diagnosis and treatment (though, House, that trickster, lied to him because he wanted him to get insurance.  The boy only had a cold).  My thought as I watched that episode: Americans no longer have to live like this.

We no longer have to freak out that our insurance is going to drop us or refuse to cover something because it’s a pre-existing condition.  In the future, we’ll no longer experience discrimination in the form of gender rating, the practice of charging women more than men for the exact same insurance when they have similar profiles.  We have free preventative care.  It’s an amazing leap forward from what we had before.

And it’s a law, not a pu-pu platter, which means that even if you don’t like everything within the law, we can’t pick and choose what we want out of it.  It saddens me when people throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to the Affordable Care Act.  45 million American women had access to preventative care last year.  That is a major accomplishment.  How many problems were found in their beginning stages so they could be treated with less expensive and invasiveness?   Some people are so focused on protesting the coverage of contraception that they fail to notice the coverage of breastfeeding support which all comes with the law (“employers to provide reasonable break time and a private, non-bathroom place for nursing mothers to express breast milk during the workday, for one year after the child’s birth. The new requirements became effective when the Affordable Care Act was signed into law on March 23, 2010”).

There are really really good things coming from this law including access to health-saving measures such as mammograms, and frankly, I’m worried about the upcoming election and the possibility of losing the gains that were made.  I don’t think many of us can stand to lose the gains that have come with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  I know that I can’t.

Deputy Chief of Staff Nancy-Ann DeParle and Deputy Assistant to the President for Health Policy Jeanne Lambrew hold a roundtable discussion on the Affordable Care Act and how health reform is benefiting women with representatives from leading women’s online publications in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., March 20, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert)

On a totally vain side note, that’s me in the bottom left corner.  You can see me ardently taking notes.  With my orange iPad out to record the meeting.  Hey, I said it was a totally vain aside.

I unpacked more of the logistics of the meeting over on BlogHer.  I hope you’ll go over there and tell your story.

When the meeting was over, Jesse walked us through the West Wing, so we could see the offices (though the door to the Oval Office was closed) and photographs.  We walked outside, past the cherry blossoms on the lawn.

Then we stepped into the press briefing room.  We were snapping pictures when someone said we shouldn’t take pictures.  So I slipped my camera back into my purse with an apology.  Then he said, “you shouldn’t take pictures until we turn on these lights!” He lit up the stage, the reporters waiting in the room totally bored as we all went up to the podium and snapped each other’s picture.  Jesse was patient and amused, as if this was the best part of the job: seeing what a mushy, happy mess we became as ordinary citizens entering this extraordinary space.

Now you see me…

Now you don’t…

And then it was time to go.  We had to wait by the White House gates for an additional few minutes while the Irish motorcade went through.  And then they opened the gate and we passed back into the normal world with all the other people milling on the sidewalk, part of school trips and tourist groups.  A few of us stood around talking for another few minutes.  A little boy climbing on the gate was yelled at by a guard, and the four of us all had the same parental protective reaction, especially once we saw the tears starting to well up in his eyes.  He was excited.  Listen, while I may have enough self-control to not climb the gates, internally, I was climbing the gates while I was inside the White House.  I was giddy to be standing inside history.

I crossed the park and decided to walk all the way back to Josh’s office because the sun had come out and it was now a balmy 75 degrees with a light breeze carrying the scent of the ubiquitous, Washingtonian cherry blossoms.  I almost never go downtown when the cherry blossoms are in season; it’s too crowded and they’re just a bunch of flowers, right?  But then I found myself down there, seeing these gifts that came from across the ocean, and I wondered why I let myself miss this year after year.  This is the Washington I love, the white marble buildings; the fact that any one of us can end up in the White House — either behind the Oval Office desk or as a visitor in the Roosevelt Room; the motorcades; the cherry blossoms.  And I walked the many blocks to Josh’s office deeply in love with my city.  I literally just fell in love again with my city.


1 Michelle { 03.21.12 at 12:00 pm }

What an exciting day!

What disturbs me most is not the government requiring insurance carriers to offer contraceptive coverage. It’s the lack of the government requiring insurance carriers to provide basic coverage to pregnant women. I’m going to have to pay OOP for all pre-natal coverage and the delivery of my child because my insurance carrier is not required to offer maternity benefits. What if I was medium income? What if I made too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to pay $8000 OOP for prenatal and birth expenses. What would happen to me and my baby?

Most people have group insurance policies through their employers who opt-in for maternity coverage. Most people aren’t self-employed and purchasing an individual health plan. Most people don’t know that insuance carriers don’t have to cover pregnant women. Yet, we are concerned about providing birth control? Because clearly it’s cheaper to prevent women from having babies than it is to care for a woman pregnant with one.

2 serenity { 03.21.12 at 12:14 pm }

Not only is that you, but also calls you out as a woman “from leading online women’s publications!” Woo!

Michelle – I am listening closely right now to politicians when they talk about health issues and how it affects women. I can’t agree with you more.

I also love the idea of focusing on preventative care I’ve ALWAYS felt that the better we are at preventing health ssues, the less costly it is to insure everyone. But for some reason insurance companies don’t like to work that way. I’m happy the government is stepping in.

3 magpie { 03.21.12 at 12:14 pm }

I love this. I love your sense of the moment – and your mantra.

4 HereWeGoAJen { 03.21.12 at 12:15 pm }

So cool! Thanks for writing this all up so I could live vicariously through you.

5 a { 03.21.12 at 12:20 pm }

5 years ago, I had many reasons to quit my job and start something new. Sometimes I regret not taking the chance, but part of the reason I stay is because we have really incredible health care coverage. I would not be able to get the service I get (with a minimum of hassle) anywhere else. Who knew that it would be an influencing factor in my career?

I would be just as (internally) giddy as you to be there in the White House, though I appear to have the same Quaker ideas. Maybe by your 5th visit, it will be old hat, but from what I know of you, I doubt it.

Isn’t it amazing when you get to rediscover a place that you know well? I forced my daughter, niece, and nephew to take a loooong drive through Chicago on our way to the beach last summer…ostensibly to avoid rush hour traffic. But it was really more to just take a drive and see life in the city.

6 Audrey { 03.21.12 at 12:21 pm }

This sounds amazing! I love experiences like this. During the presidential primaries in 08 I got to be in the media mix in New Hampshire, and on set at Face the Nation when McCain was on. It was a heady experience and made me really sit up and look at the process and what these people were actually saying as well as how they were behaving. I kind of crave that sort of fast paced environment now, but am far removed from it in the trenches of motherhood.

7 loribeth { 03.21.12 at 12:27 pm }

So glad you had such an amazing day. : ) Those photos are fabulous and I LOVED that last paragraph — made me want to book a flight to DC, pronto ; ) — I’ve always wanted to be there when the cherry blossoms were in bloom. (I always thought that happened in April, but I guess everything is happening earlier this year — global warming, etc. :p )

As for the subject matter — I find it funny/strange that some Americans don’t like the Canadian health care system because “we don’t want government telling us what kind of health care we can have.” Ummmm, isn’t your current system employers & insurance companies telling you what kind of health care you can or can’t have? Frankly, I wouldn’t trade — I think we’ve got the better deal, overall. I hope the current changes stick. I know way too many of my mother’s American relatives who are still working, well into their 70s, simply because they wouldn’t otherwise have medical coverage.

8 Marcia Raven { 03.21.12 at 12:27 pm }

Thank you for sharing .I checked out your blog after reading your book and the first blog I read was about your first trip to the White Yous.

9 Curly Sue { 03.21.12 at 12:40 pm }

Thank you for sharing this experience with us! Also, I love that you’re rocking natural curls 🙂 Do you follow the Curly Girl method?? That’s my other passion (besides IF…personally I prefer obsessing over hair…).

10 Marcia Raven { 03.21.12 at 12:41 pm }

ISorry,White House was what I was trying to write.

11 Peg { 03.21.12 at 12:43 pm }

So cool and yes, it is an awesome city isn’t it?

12 TasIVFer { 03.21.12 at 12:56 pm }

This is my The West Wing and return-to-my-childhood fantasy all wrapped with Purpose!

13 liljan98 { 03.21.12 at 1:08 pm }

What an amazing and incredible story! Thanks for sharing your experience. Whenever I read about the current US health care debate online I’m so grateful to live in a European country where most of what you mentioned has already been implemented for years.

When you mentioned the Roosevelt Room in the first post I immediately had to think of Sam Seaborn meeting Leo’s daugther Mallory there, when she was visiting the White House with her class. Fun TV times to remember. And you actually were in that room for real. Wow!

14 Elana Kahn { 03.21.12 at 1:10 pm }

What a fun day!! I would love to get in there and advocate for insurance companies to cover doulas alongside the new coverage for lactation consultants. Ahh, what a great world that would be. 🙂

15 kh99 { 03.21.12 at 2:30 pm }

That is so awesome!! Congrats!

16 Eve { 03.21.12 at 2:52 pm }

Holy ship! What I love best is that you were not “too cool” to take pics. As a health care provider, I am extremely invested both personally and professionally in what is our healthcare future. I live DC…It’s one of my favorite cities.

17 Lauren { 03.21.12 at 2:55 pm }

Hi Mel,
LOVE the blog. Congrats on your amazing accomplishments. Blogs, books, White House trips…I greatly admire your tenacity and your knack for storytelling! All the best!

18 Jules { 03.21.12 at 4:32 pm }

Thanks for pointing out the employer breastfeeding needs requirement. I had no idea that was put into law! That’s great news for us cubicle workers!

19 Chickenpig { 03.21.12 at 4:41 pm }

I love history. I don’t think I would have been able to contain myself 🙂 I would be jumping on the gates, too. And not just on the inside.

And thanks for all that you do.

20 Barely Sane { 03.21.12 at 4:43 pm }

Wow – what an incredible account. I have goosebumps thinking about the history made in that building and I’m Canadian! …..
….And loving our health care system right about now.

21 BigP's Heather { 03.21.12 at 6:00 pm }

I’m super jealous!!

The little kid in me couldn’t help giggle over the chairs- think of all the important people who have wanted in those chairs!!!!

22 It Is What It Is { 03.21.12 at 6:04 pm }

It is so humbling to know that you were invited back, that you had the occasion to sit in the White House TWICE, that your opinion matters and was heard, etc.

I totally agree with your ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ sentiment. And, seriously, can we not agree that provide insurance benefits that cover contraception is preventative care? Like I would EVER leave my reproductive protection in the hands of a man with a condom.

Bravo, Mel. Rockstar!

23 Jo { 03.21.12 at 6:10 pm }

What an amazing day, and what an amazing opportunity to continue to do what you do best: speak up for ALL women. So glad you were able to go!


24 TasIVFer { 03.21.12 at 6:24 pm }

BTW how did you manage to stay so COMPOSED in the photos?! :-). Not that you cannot handle serious business, but the White House! I think I am more excited by famous buildings than famous people.

25 Trisha { 03.21.12 at 6:37 pm }

That is so amazing! Thank you for being such an amazing advocate for all of us.

26 Her Royal Fabulousness { 03.21.12 at 6:45 pm }

You are so lucky! Amazing.

I had lunch with a fellow IF blogger today and I told her you were my blogging hero. This just confirmed it!

27 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 03.21.12 at 10:57 pm }

I LOVE the cherry blossoms.

I now feel pretty silly that in my years living in DC I never made it inside the White House (or Congress, or the Library of Congress…).

Way to change the world, Mel.

28 geochick { 03.22.12 at 10:49 am }

Awesome! I love how you point out the door to the Oval Office. Off to read your BlogHer rundown. The argument for contraception is raising my ire. I’m glad others are able to articulate what I can’t because I’m too pissed off. Michelle, I can’t believe that basic maternity isn’t in the law! WTF.

29 Keiko { 03.22.12 at 12:50 pm }

I am so proud to know you, Mel. This is really, really inspiring. Thank you for sharing your insights into such an important day.

30 marwil { 03.22.12 at 12:52 pm }

Great work you are doing, and what an exciting day! I have visited Washington once many years ago, standing outside those gates.

31 Katie { 03.22.12 at 1:00 pm }

Thank you so much for posting this. I’m so honored that you were in attendance to represent all of us women who want our voices and concerns about healthcare heard!

32 Casey { 03.22.12 at 2:28 pm }

“I said to myself, “this is what it feels like to not be strangled by your clock.” It was a strange, wonderful feeling. I wish I were better about time and could experience that more often.”

That is the greatest response to being early I’ve ever read. Great post, and the work you’re helping to do is even greater. 🙂 Thank you for being a beacon for society, and a guiding light for the blogging community.

33 mrsrochester { 03.22.12 at 4:11 pm }

This is awesome! So cool that you get to be a part of something so important. And those cherry blossoms are gorge! (BTW – can I just say how much I HATE Blogger? Making ICLW difficult!)

34 {sue} { 03.22.12 at 4:25 pm }

My heart is all swelly reading this! Health care reform means so much to me. I shared my story in the comments at BlogHer, but thanks for being a part of this!

35 Lori Lavender Luz { 03.22.12 at 4:38 pm }

So cool to see you at that podium. I love the way Jesse toyed with you all a little.

Beautiful pix!

36 Natalie { 03.23.12 at 3:40 am }

How awesome is that!!

I agree with the preventative healthcare and the pregnancy coverage. I love that a lot of people (including me) have coverage for such things. But it should be everyone. It really shouldn’t be up to whatever employer I have to decide that for me…. especially right now when people can’t afford to be picky about who their employer is.

37 clare { 03.24.12 at 7:25 am }

I’ll write more over at blogher… but for me, I think it is insane that Americans are not more upset about the link between full time work being the only/primary way to get health coverage in the USA if you have a pre-existing condition. Getting rid of that is huge… HUGE!

I’ve been unable to get individual care from the day I aged- out of my parents plans. I work full time most of the time.. but there are times where part time work makes more sense (when caring for an ill family member, if we got lucky and had kids and wanted to go part time when they were little, when starting a new business…). These all seem like very ‘American’ things to do, but we left our country to do them because I couldn’t get insurance in America. As if my POF isn’t annoying enough as is!

I think Americans don’t fully realize how much we now make our work choices based on insurance (and now a tight economy makes it even harder). But think of this for a moment. Once in NZ, my bosses needed to reduce costs for a few months. We were all offered to work one less day a week, for 1 day less a week of salary.

My American friends all asked “What are you going to do for insurance!?!?!??!”

My non-american friends all asked “What are you going to do with your TIME?” with some also asking if we’d be okay money wise and if we needed some help. They wanted to know if I’d used my TIME to get a part time job, start a business, volunteer, take a class, take cheap 3 day weekend vacations, garden,

I was so struck by this. Because in America it is much harder for someone like me who can’t get insurance without a full time job (until now!!! yay~!!) to think outside of the box. There have been many times in my life where I needed TIME not the money. I could get by with less money, but I needed time to care for someone I loved or chase a new dream. But that was crazy talk at the time, because “what would you do for insurance, Clare?” kept me in my box until I moved overseas to whatever countries would take me.

38 BigP's Heather { 03.25.12 at 8:59 am }

Um, not “wanted”….Damn phone. It should say farted…

39 Barb { 03.26.12 at 10:40 pm }

I love DC too. It’s my favorite US city. But I dont like the traffic and the cost. I’m such a rural girl.

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