He left a barely adequate East Alabama high school at 15 for the University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins Medical School. Among his accomplishments was a pioneering cardiovascular program — the beating heart of the globally recognized University of Alabama in Birmingham.
I met him only once, but it was from him that I was able early in my career to resolve the debate: Is medical care a right or a privilege? It is neither, said Dr. Harrison, slicing through to the heart of the issue. It is a necessity.
Among his gifts to us is a slender volume, Your Future Health Care, that is worth dozens of private dinners and chats with a man of curiosity, intellect and great humanity. The book is self-revelatory and also predicts where we are now.
At the center of Tinsley Harrison's universe is a singularly important person, the patient, in whom he finds both "inspiration and information." At the top of his pyramid of medical specialties he places the family doctor.
With various subspecialties expanding out from the family doctor and a patient at the center, he envisioned the profession, medical schools and government in creative partnership solving the dilemma of access, cost and quality.
He died disappointed, knowing the system is broken; it will not fix itself and thus the government would have to step in to insure that care was available to those who need it.
How would he feel about the so-called Obama bill? He could not answer that because there is no bill, will be no bill or maybe two or more competing bills until the fall.
Our Congressman Mike Rogers hasn't seen the phantom bill either, but he's against it. I guess it's OK to be against things you can't see. I imagine he's also against ghosts, ghoulies and boogers that go bump in the night.
Anyway, he knows "the Democrat majority proposes to cut costs by rationing care by deciding whether or not you get to go to the doctor, which doctor you get to go to" and on and on as if he were talking about something real.
A genuine reality was unfolding in western Appalachia at the same time the local Republican rose to speak in the well of the House.
The Remote Area Medical Expedition (RAM) arrived for its annual visit to coal-mining country, setting up at the Wise County Fair Grounds, where 2,700 people from all over rural Virginia and West Virginia actually get to see a doctor.
Dr. Harrison, who always put the needs of the patient first, would be pleased to know that 1,800 doctors, surgeons, dentists, optometrists, nurses and allied health personnel volunteered three days to serve those people.
He likely would approve the price tag for the RAM expedition. The teams' expenses of $250,000 delivered health care worth $1.5 million.
Before the gate opened, Loretta Miller, 41, of Honaker, Va., got four hours' sleep behind the wheel of her parked minivan. She was No. 39 in line for her eighth RAM expedition. Her visit last year saved her life.
"They done an ultrasound and told me that my gallbladder was enlarged and was ready to burst and it could kill me," Miller recalls. "They told me if I hadn't got help when I did, literally I could have died," she told an NPR reporter.
Otis Reece, 52, of Gate City, Va., waited in a wheelchair beside his red pickup. He told NPR that he had drawn a six-figure salary with an international company until an accident five years ago. He brought his wife, daughter, son-in-law and six grandchildren to the free clinic.
"I came here because of health care — being able to get things that we can't afford to have ordinarily. Being on a fixed income, this is a fantastic situation to have things done we ordinarily would put off."
RAM founder Stan Brock concludes, "There's no doubt about it. There is a Third World right here in the United States. Here in the world's richest country, you have this vast number of people, some say 47 million, 49 million, that don't have access to the system and that's why [this] is necessary."
Brock's amazing volunteer effort eloquently makes the point that medical care in this country is not wisely, economically or humanely distributed, but I doubt Wise County was in Rep. Rogers' head when he rose to speak in the ornate House chamber.
Tinsley Harrison already knew and regretted how poorly care is parceled out in America, that knowledge surely pained him because he was about giving, not receiving, as he illustrated in these lines by author and advertising executive Bruce Barton.
The Sea of Galilee receives but does not keep the Jordan.
For every drop that flows into it another drop flows out.The other sea is shrewder … Every drop it gets it keeps.
The Sea of Galilee gives and lives. The other sea gives nothing. It is named The Dead.
There are two seas in Palestine.
There are two kinds of people in the world.
Because he was a giver, Dr. Harrison knew that inevitably when the private conscience does not provide for patients' needs, the public conscience — government — is the only resource that can and will.