Commentary: Public service is a risk worth taking

Now I’m the expert on mining, taxes, education, budgets, opioids, marijuana and the future of Philo Farnsworth.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Senate starts the day's session with the Pledge of Allegiance, in Salt Lake City, Friday, Feb. 23, 2018.

Growing up in a divorced home, I was blessed to have a cheering mother, an off-site father who worked hard and teachers who believed in me. Going to medical school and becoming a family doctor was a dream come true.

People want to be appreciated for who they are and what they do, and I was no different. Serving as a doctor seemed to be the natural fit for me. I hunger for knowledge, complete tasks put on my proverbial plate, and carry the view that there is always room for improvement.

For 26 years, that is what I have been doing — serving an underserved community like the one in which I grew up. I learned how to manage and grow a business, helping people make good health choices, one person at a time.

So when I received a phone call, finding out that the only doctor in the Utah Senate had resigned, I was speechless and humbled. After talking with my wife — which is always wise — I said I would run for the vacant seat. Did I know what that meant? No, except I rekindled the art of making house calls and asking people to vote for me. Not being a seasoned “politician,” I thought the experience would be fun.

Except I won.

My mother said I was off my rocker.

“Why do you want people to be mad at you?” she said.

In a way, she was right. As a doctor, I help people get well, with views fairly centrist in nature. One reality of our partisan system is that you make a choice which party you represent, so at least 30 percent of the folks you speak for reflexively dislike you.

“You belong to that party.”

I see this as a chance to reach out and learn about all viewpoints — important in solving problems.

After my election, I was told, “Now you’ll have a lot of friends.”

I could see why some would let that get to their heads. One is placed on a pedestal, and it takes courage to ask for help, to be transparent about limited knowledge in certain areas, and to simply remain at peace when the pace of life suddenly quickens beyond your control.

Knowing medical issues is one thing, and I’m always learning something new as a doctor. Now I’m the expert on mining, taxes, education, budgets, opioids, marijuana and the future of Philo Farnsworth. Is anyone else besides the big kahuna in the sky laughing? Having a healthy sense of humor helps keeps life in perspective.

I am struck by the genuine desire of our public elected officials to make a difference. These are people just like you and me. No one is perfect. Some don’t play nice in the sandbox. Thick skin is needed as emotions can run pretty high. We are passionate about the things that matter to us. We all want to be heard.

Being a good listener, having character and showing concern make a difference at home, work, church or other areas of one’s influence. When you receive a gentle nudge to move out of your comfort zone and try something new, give it a go. You never know what might happen. Heck, you might even get a bill passed that could make it possible for 70,000 new people in Utah to have basic access to health care without breaking the bank in the process.

John F Kennedy said, “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.”

We all can make a difference. Take a risk and journey. You might even have fun in the process.

Brian Zehnder is a family physician and represents District 8 — Cottonwood Heights, Midvale and Murray — in the Utah Senate. He can be reached at bzehnder@le.utah.gov.