Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The caregiver and the scapegoat

Today, turned out to be a banner day for medical workers accused of criminal wrongdoing. Not only did Libya -- finally! -- release a doctor and five nurses who had spent 8 1/2 years in prison under threat of execution (on the flimsiest of evidence), but also a grand jury in Louisiana cleared the last of those accused of "mercy killing" during Hurricane Katrina:
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AP) -- A grand jury Tuesday declined to indict Dr. Anna Pou, the surgeon accused of killing four seriously ill patients in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Pou and two nurses were arrested last summer after Attorney General Charles Foti's investigation concluded they gave four patients a "lethal cocktail" at Memorial Medical Center amid the chaotic conditions that followed the August 2005 storm.
What these two cases -- across the world from one another -- had in common is the element of scapegoating. In both Katrina, and the infecting of hundreds of Libyan children with HIV, there was a tragedy the result of which innocent people died. In both cases, there was an angry public. And, in both cases, the politicians in power were looking for somebody to blame.

It had always struck me as terribly unfair that the Dr. Pou, along with two nurses, were accused of criminal wrongdoing. It's not that I'm defending their actions (I really don't even know the details). But, at a time when dozens of police officers and others were abandoning their posts, these three caregivers chose to follow the call of their profession and stay. They stayed with their patients in a hospital where the electricity was out, where the first floor was under 10 feet of water and where the temperatures topped 100 degrees. Did they make some questionable decisions under those incredibly difficult circumstances? Maybe. But to haul them before a court of law when all they were trying to do was save lives? Absurd! I'm so glad it's over.


The next Katrina?

Episcopal Chaplain points out that the Dr. Pou case is anything but irrelevant to the work of hospital chaplains and ethcisits: the very kind of challenging ethical dilemmas that Dr. Pou faced in a sudden crisis (ie, not enough working medical equipment and care to go around) may be just around the corner for all of us. All takes is a (widely expected) flu pandemic or a major terrorist event (please, God, let it not come to be).

What will we do? Are we ready for these ethical decisions? Will we (again!) scapegoat the people brave enough to stay at their posts?

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