On August 5, 1949, an intense wildfire raged in the Mann Gulch region of Montana’s Helena National Forest. Undeterred by extreme heat and turbulent wind conditions, fifteen fire-fighting smokejumpers, along with foreman Wag Dodge, parachuted into the midst of the inferno.
Once they landed, the situation turned from bad to worse as the fast-moving fire was soon within a hundred yards of them.
Desperate to find a way out, Dodge did something that, to others, must have seemed completely crazy. He reached into his pocket, took out a match, and set fire to the tall, dry grass in front of him. Within moments a path had been burned leading to a rocky ridge above – a makeshift buffer zone where Dodge was able to wait safely while the main fire burned around him.
Unfortunately, despite Dodge’s encouragement, nobody followed his lead.
Whether it was because they couldn’t hear him, misunderstood his instructions, or simply refused to take advantage of an obvious, if implausible, way out of a terrifying situation, thirteen of the fifteen smokejumpers were soon engulfed by the fire and died.
When asked what led him to do what he did, Dodge said that even though he had never heard of what’s referred to as an “escape fire” (this sort of approach generally works only in grassy areas, not in the pine forests where Dodge was working that day), it just seemed logical to him.
Wag Dodge’s ability to come up with an innovative, life-saving solution to a dire problem provides the metaphor for what’s being hailed as one of the most important documentaries to hit American theaters in recent memory – Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare.
Produced and directed by award-winning filmmakers, Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke, Escape Fire shines a large and unforgiving spotlight on what most everyone agrees is a broken system – one that spends almost as much on pharmaceutical drugs as the rest of the world combined and is far more focused on disease management than healthcare. Ultimately, however, the producers see the film as being less about pointing fingers than “finding a way out…. About saving the health of a nation.”
One of the most compelling aspects of the film’s web site is an invitation for visitors to share personal escape fire proposals – that is, their own “unconventional or counterintuitive solution[s] to [the] difficult problem[s]” confronting our nation’s healthcare system.
Some of the responses posted so far:
“Focus on the information flow. The solution is in the sharing.”
“Transform the healthcare system through patient centered medical homes.”
“Eat less processed foods and get more exercise.”
“Seek out alternative approaches to health.”
“Think for yourself and consider all options.”
Although I have yet to weigh in on the conversation myself, the invite reminded me of a good friend who once found herself in a situation not unlike that faced by Wag Dodge and his fellow smokejumpers.
After fifteen years of living with an abusive husband and entering into a second troubled marriage, she was diagnosed with untreatable stomach cancer. For seven months she continued to struggle, gripped with fear, unable to eat most foods or sleep more than an hour a night. In a moment of despair, she tried to commit suicide by ingesting a bottle of sleeping pills.
She was found by her husband in a coma and taken to a hospital where she was put on life support with little hope of survival. When she regained consciousness five days later, she realized that her original escape plan had failed; death was not an option.
It was then that my friend did something that, to those around her, probably seemed just as crazy as Wag Dodge setting fire to a swath of tall, dry grass: She decided to give up on drugs and rely entirely on prayer for her healing.
Within a few days she completely recovered from the effects of her overdose and was released from the hospital. She then contacted a Christian Science practitioner who assured her that cancer could indeed be healed – not by way of pleading with some unknown God to do something miraculous but, as she describes it, through a growing understanding of God’s unyielding love for His creation.
After about five months, she knew she was healed.
This was well over twenty years ago. Since then she hasn’t experienced a single symptom of stomach cancer, is happily married, and is able to help others take advantage of this same approach to health care – with successful results.
Whether it was because of her willingness to “think for [herself] and consider all options” or, like Wag Dodge, to simply do what seemed logical, the fire ignited by my friend’s decision provided an unmistakable way out of a frightening situation, saving not only her own life but, quite possibly, the lives of many others who are now benefitting from her example.
Although “the fight to rescue American healthcare” may have just begun, I have every reason to believe that it’s a fight that can and will be won.
Eric Nelson is a Los Altos resident. His articles on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local, regional, and national online publications, including The Washington Times. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. This article published with permission by Communities @WashingtonTimes.com.