Lawmaking is a dangerous business: fatigue, high blood pressure, the occasional fistfight. When the suffering starts, the Roundhouse’s director of health services, Don “Doctor Don” Mason, is on hand to divvy out Band-Aids, arrange flu shots and schedule visits with acupuncturists. For 17 years, Mason, a paramedic and university instructor, has coordinated health services at the Capitol for regular and special sessions.
SFR: What department does health services fit under?
DM: It comes under the Legislative Council Service because I work for both chambers. My joke is that I limit my treatment to semi-domesticated, non-feathered bipeds.
That’s how you define a legislator?
No, that’s how I define anybody in the building that I would treat. For instance, yesterday we had a teacher from Mora who needed treatment for about four hours, but school kids and legislators, lobbyists, visiting public, foreign visitors—they’re all just people that need medicine.
Do you have an office where you can examine people?
Well, not quite. My space is an unused hallway on the south side of the building. I picked it many years ago because it had good sunlight. We have a doctor of the day program and I really work just to help them find the people they need to treat. My level of licensure is a paramedic.
So, ‘Doctor Don’ is just nickname? You’re not really a doctor?
Correct. [A Caribbean ringtone interrupts the interview; Mason answers his cell phone] Yes, ma’am? East lobby? OK. I’ll be right back…[10 minutes later] So, for a lot of the temporary staff, I’m the only medical thing they see in a year because they’re marginalized and have no insurance and that sort of thing. So, it’s just a term of endearment, and I really make no pretense. I don’t prescribe or do anything like that. Doctor is sort of like my first name.
What sort of things happen here? Was that an emergency just now?
Sort of. It was a lady throwing up. We provide service for everything from paper cuts and hangovers to heart attacks and strokes. Then we get germs from every school child who brings a different germ from every city in New Mexico every day. So, upper respiratory infection, colds and flu are just rampant. They go through the building: ‘Cough-cough, Hi! How are you?’ Handshake. And then it goes to the handrail and then it goes to the doorknob and then it goes to the telephone.
Do legislators need a lot of antacids and aspirin?
They need a lot of everything…I sometimes describe myself as the warden. My function is to keep legislators in the building.
Do lawmakers get progressively more unhealthy as the session goes on?
That’s true as they put in longer hours. Right now they’re putting in 10 hours and, later in the session, they’ll be going to midnight, and then they’ll be going to 2 in the morning. I’ve actually been around the clock with them twice. It’s very stressful, plus long hours and not adequate sleep: The immune system goes down; then those bugs I mentioned just catch everybody.
What’s the worst that has happened at the Legislature?
The scariest night of my life will be [when] the senators [play] the representatives in basketball [the game has been postponed until March 6]. I take every piece of equipment I own. I usually take all of my staff. We’ve had serious injuries there. We’ve had a torn rotator cuff, a destroyed ACL [the knee’s anterior cruciate ligament] and an MCL [the knee’s medial collateral ligament] on another one that required three surgeries. One of the legislators hurt his hand so bad, he couldn’t work at his job for a year. I’ve already had two legislators injured getting ready for the basketball game. It really is the most terrifying night of my personal life because I know them all, and they’re like family, like the Hatfields and McCoys.