Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The real savior

Doctors -- especially surgeons -- have long been accused of tending to acquire a "God complex." But I was still surprised, today, to see one turn up on the pages of the New York Times, especially because the physician in mind is part of a center of biomedical ethics at a world-class medical center:

"I saved your life!" Dr. Larry Zaroff reports telling a man he had treated while years earlier when that man demanded $300 from him in a business dispute. Before Zaroff made this pronouncement, the man, who had been unconscious at the time, had no idea Zaroff had ever treated him.

First of all, in my opinion, it's an act of incredible arrogance for any physician to credit his or herself with saving a life. Zaroff could have shocked this man's chest a thousand times and it wouldn't have helped one bit if the Blessed Holy One hadn't decided to make it possible for the heart to start again.

Second of all, to try and influence another person in a personal business dealing based on what you may or may not have done for them in a professional setting strikes me as a deeply troubling violation of ethical boundaries. Zaroff does say that now that he's "older" he would not do the same thing. But he does not seem to acknowledge the ethical problem. Nor the arrogance of claiming to save a life.

I'm curious what other folks think.

Here's an excerpt from the story:

During surgical residency, I’d learned to control the startle reaction. Don’t raise your head from the exposed heart even if the orderly knocks over the rinse basin or the nurse drops a tray of instruments. I had learned that calm worked best. I was not perfect the day we faced our prospective landlord. My head jumped back, my eyes widened. He did not notice; he had no idea we’d met the day his heart stopped.

After my shock passed, I had the same thought I’d had back then: “Why tell him? Surely he has suffered enough.” . . .

We had left a deposit when we signed the lease. Now the landlord checked the apartment like a lion after a wildebeest, zeroing in on the fireplace . . . He turned toward me. He became adjacent and angry. “You owe me $300,” he snarled, shaking with each word. . . .

I took a deep breath, and I gently asked him if he remembered his heart attack.

“Yes, sure.”

“Do you know your heart stopped?”

“I think so.”

“Well, I was the one who saved your life, brought your heart back.”

He hesitated. “I didn’t know that.”

He turned to the door, distressed, in pain. Turned again. “You still owe me $300.”

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