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North Idaho needs more civility, less extremism

by MIKE BAKER/Guest Opinion
| March 20, 2021 1:00 AM

When I was growing up in Utah, every summer my parents would host an ice cream party for the neighborhood. My Mom was a nurse and my father was an electrician, and they loved people. Every year for 44 years on the last Monday in August, neighbors and friends would bring ice cream, bananas, cones and toppings and gather together for hours in the front yard just catching up and being a community. The night culminated in an epic water fight led by my dad that we all still talk about today. We didn’t all practice the same religion or have the same political beliefs, but as neighbors, we knew we could come together around ice cream and the joy it sparked in the kids and families who called our neighborhood home.

It’s the middle of winter here in North Idaho, but recent events have made me reflect on those childhood moments, and ask myself what I can do to create more “ice cream party” conversations in our community. As the leader of Heritage Health, which serves almost 30,000 patients each year with medical, dental, mental health and substance use disorder treatment, I’d like to believe that I’m in a position to do so.

Yet, for all the challenges of 2020, delivering care to a politically divided patient base has been the toughest. When COVID-19 hit last March, we followed the CDC guidance, like all health care facilities. We began requiring masks to enter our facilities, which was, to say the least, not universally endorsed in our community. Many saw it as a threat to their personal freedoms.

Like other health care leaders, I attended many of the public health meetings regarding the mask mandate. I found myself outside visiting with someone with opposing views. When we didn’t end up finding common ground, this man looked at me and said: “Because you don’t agree with me, you are now my enemy and if I had my gun, I’d shoot you right here and now.”

Fortunately for me, he didn’t have his gun and things ended peacefully, but that moment really shook me to the core.

As CEO, I have to make tough decisions for the greater good of our teams and the people we serve. As with the mask requirement, sometimes this sets our employees up for confrontation and jeopardizes the sacred relationship between our health care teams and our patients. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Where we should have conversations and shared values, instead we have security guards screening for patients who threaten our medical staff. Last fall, a 115-pound medical assistant called me in tears after a 6-foot, 3-inch, 280-pound man verbally assaulted her for simply following the policies that we implemented on the recommendation of the CDC. This isn’t the sort of thing people expect when they go into a career in health care and it represents the worst of our current situation.

In our mission to provide hope, inspire change and extend life, we don’t get to decide which half of our patient base we favor. At the end of the day, we truly don’t care who you voted for. We aren’t trying to force anything on you. Every health care professional I know works hard to serve our patients and guide them through their health care journey. We live and work by the values of mutual respect, common understanding and believing in the good in humanity. In my heart, I believe the silent majority of Idahoans are too.

It’s my nature to lay low, do my job well and raise my family in peace. But the past year has made me want to stand up and speak out more in our community. That’s why, in the coming months, Heritage Health, Marimn Health and other local leaders are creating a new initiative aimed at fostering civility through small group discussions with community members with diverse viewpoints. I believe this will help people learn how to actively listen, even when we disagree, and that we can create a safe space for robust discussions.

Leaders in health care must model appropriate, productive behavior. We cannot be sucked in to the latest conspiracy theory or movement of the moment. We need to be the steady ship in the sea for our teams, and they need to see us deal with different ideologies using the principles of civil discourse. We must model behavior that shows that it is OK to disagree, and that we can find common ground on most subjects if we are respectful and actively listen to the other side.

The quiet people like I was, living in the middle, are the secret to breaking the gridlock because they outnumber the small percentage of extremists on either side, even here in North Idaho.

I remain optimistic that we can apply the golden rule and join together as a community to end the extremism that is destroying our country.

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Mike Baker is the CEO of Heritage Health. He lives with his wife and three children in Coeur d’Alene.