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It is altogether curious your first contact with poverty. You have thought
so much about poverty — it is the thing you have feared all your life, the
thing you knew would happen sooner or later; and it is all so utterly and
prosaically different. You thought it would be quite simple; it is
extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely
squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you
discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness,
– George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London
George Orwell’s 1933 memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London,
relates the clear-eyed experience of being homeless and penniless. The
novel’s protagonist lives in Paris giving English lessons and eventually
experiences a stroke of bad fortune and loses his job; money slowly but
surely disappears. He is overcome with “a feeling of relief, almost of
pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out.”
Imagine, Orwell asks of us, what this bad fortune means. You cannot send
letters because stamps are too expensive. At the baker, an ordered pound of
bread weighs in slightly more and thus costs slightly more — and you cannot
pay for it. You avoid “a prosperous friend” on the street so he
won’t see that you’re “hard up.” And you’re hungry. Wherever you walk there
are inescapable reminders of this: bakeries, restaurants, coffee shops.
“Hunger,” Orwell writes, “reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless
condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else.” Months pass by in between baths. Clothing is pawned. In the midst
of this scramble to live, however, one forgets that there is, indeed, a lot
of time with nothing to do at all: “you discover the boredom which is
inseparable from poverty; the times when you have nothing to do and, being
underfed, can interest yourself in nothing.”
Orwell based such descriptions largely on personal experiences. In 1927 he
spent time in the company of tramps and beggars in London, dressed in
worn-out clothing and sleeping in poor lodging-houses for two or three
days. He subsequently moved to Paris and subjected
himself to similar experiences. In doing so, he eventually brought
attention to the plight of the poor, providing an honest, unvarnished look
at what it was like to be down and out.
Rereading the book reminds me of Bellevue Hospital, New York City’s
flagship public hospital. Bellevue, or its progenitor, was originally an
infirmary in Manhattan in the 1660s and became the most well-known of the
public hospitals in the country (I have
written about it for Public Discourse). Here physicians treat the uninsured, the
undocumented, and the homeless. It is a rare day when a physician at
Bellevue does not interact with New York’s poorest residents.
|Jim Henderson (Creative Commons)|
Sometimes they come in search of medical care and sometimes they come in
search of a meal. They stumble in from homeless shelters or from street
corners, inebriated, withdrawing from drugs or alcohol, psychotic,
suicidal, deathly ill or sober. Occasionally they unknowingly enter the
emergency room with lice or bedbugs and nurses delouse them with multiple
layers of permethrin, an insecticide. The physician must approach these infested patients with
a hairnet, gown, and gloves — the lice crawl on the patient’s head, chest,
arms and bed sheets. The smell sometimes overwhelms the doctor or nurse,
too. It may have been months since the patient has bathed, and the odor
percolates throughout the room and the hallway.
As I wrote in my Public Discourse piece, the patient presentations
are frightening and remarkable:
Ride the elevator down, and you will stare in horror as an agitated drug
addict with an infection tries to punch a physician while bolting out of
his hospital room with security guards and nurses in pursuit. Next door, a
homeless patient lies in bed with heart failure. Next to him is a patient
who’s visiting New York from Africa with a raging AIDS infection. Peer into
another room down the hall, and you can watch patients withdrawing from
alcohol or heroin, thrashing about and screaming.
Physicians have the unique privilege at Bellevue to see poverty up close,
which so rarely occurs in upper and middle class professions. But as close
as we are, we don’t really understand the poor the way Orwell did. We don’t
live amongst them or feel the curse of extended hunger or the uncertainty
of when the next meal will come. We don’t experience that odd sensation of
boredom, where there is nothing to do because one has nothing to do it
with. And we cannot fully empathize with their fragile health.
This is why Orwell’s book is so enlightening. At least we get a description
of what some of Bellevue’s patients may go through; at least we get a
glimpse. It creates a little less space between the comfortable and the
But Orwell wasn’t wholly right about the poor. He wrote in Down and Out:
The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and
nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher
dressed in a new suit. Change places, and handy dandy, which is the
justice, which is the thief? Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the
poor knows this quite well. But the trouble is that intelligent, cultivated
people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions,
never do mix with the poor.
True, there is a closeness between “intelligent, cultivated people” and the
“poor” simply by virtue of being human. However, there are deep differences
that would not disappear if the two simply switched jobs and clothing. For
instance, in 2016,
four percent of U.S. adults experienced a “serious mental illness.” This did not cover patients without
fixed addresses — the homeless. And
approximately one fifth of the homeless in the United States suffer from a severe mental illness. Even if the definitions of “severe”
and “serious” don’t match up precisely, the difference between mental
illness among the homeless and other US adults is huge. And these
differences matter both to policy analysts and to physicians.
Two epidemiologists, Elizabeth Bradley and Lauren Taylor, have written a
thoughtful book dealing with the issue of rising health care costs entitled The American Health Care Paradox. In it they argue that our
skyrocketing health care expenditures (we spend
more than double the share of GDP of other developed countries on health care) and poor outcomes (we are in the high 20s or low 30s in rankings among OECD developed countries for maternal mortality, life expectancy, low birth weight, and
infant mortality) are not due to
overspending, but rather to underspending by the United States on social services — affordable housing,
education, access to healthy food, and so forth.
Bradley and Taylor
explain how this happens:
Several studies have demonstrated the health toll of living on the
streets; more than two-thirds of America’s homeless population suffer from
mental illness or substance dependency, while nearly half have at least one
additional chronic condition such as diabetes or hypertension. The high
costs of health care provided to people who are homeless have been well
documented. For instance, in one five-year period, 119 people who were
chronically homeless and tracked by the Boston Health Care for the Homeless
Program incurred a total of 18,834 emergency room visits estimated to cost
This makes sense. Many of our homeless patients deal with chronic diseases
like diabetes, mental illness, or congestive heart failure. We stabilize
them in the hospital and send them back to a shelter or the street. Often
they return the next week with exacerbation of their heart failure or
sky-high blood sugars or psychosis, even when medication is provided by the
hospital without charging the patient.
Thus a chasm separates our world and that of the poor, yet they are
entangled. How can you get someone to start eating vegetables and fruits
and whole grains in order to mitigate the effects of diabetes if they don’t
have money to buy these foods? How can you control a child’s asthma if a
family does not have money to clean their apartment and rid it of the
vermin, bugs, and dirt that pervade the nooks and crannies? How can you ensure a psychotic patient takes his medication when he can barely feed himself? The homeless
face a very different and more intimidating set of difficulties than the
wealthy. And these translate into challenges for physicians, who do
not have the time or skill to be both doctors and social workers.
We, as physicians, care for the patients until they are ready to leave the
hospital. Then they face their poverty on the street. Our view is but a
brief and skewed snapshot. In our myopic hospital world, the hospital
stretcher is detached from daily life. And this is necessarily so, to
a certain degree. Physicians can only do so much to fix societal ills — they cannot create a job, a safe home environment, or a loving family for
Nevertheless, both wealthy patients and poor patients succumb to cancer,
strokes, and heart attacks. Both undergo the
humiliating process of death and dying. In this sense, death and disease are often great equalizers. Neither the
poor nor the rich can escape them. They rapidly close the chasm between the
two classes. And at least in that vein, Orwell was right.
On Friday, December 8th, 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the
43-year-old French editor of the fashion magazine Elle,
suffered a major stroke. He was behind the wheel of his BMW after picking up his son, and suddenly felt as though he were “functioning
in slow motion.” His vision blurred and he broke out in a cold
sweat. He barely managed to get
himself and his son to the home of his sister-in-law, a nurse, who promptly
took him to the hospital. At this point, Bauby could not speak or move his
body. He slipped into a coma and woke up twenty days later to find
that he was completely paralyzed except for his left eyelid. He could hear,
see, and feel but could not move or speak — a condition known as locked-in syndrome.
Bauby’s once vigorous and ambitious life was reduced to a hospital bed in a
rehabilitation facility at Berck-sur-Mer in northern
France. Despite this fate, Bauby managed to “write” a book using eye blinking,
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (1997; adapted for the screen in 2007). His assistant slowly listed the letters of the alphabet
and Bauby blinked his left eye to indicate the letter of choice. And so he wrote the
book, letter by letter. Two days after its publication, Bauby died of
The French editor experienced a rare stroke in a relatively small area of the
brain. In most cases a
stroke, or death of brain tissue, is due to the blockage of an artery (ischemic
stroke), but strokes can also be due to bleeding (hemorrhagic stroke). In
Bauby’s case, a clot likely wedged itself into the basilar artery, a vessel
supplying blood to the cerebellum and brainstem. This
caused an ischemic stroke in an area of the brainstem called the pons. Because the brainstem connects the spinal cord to the brain, all of the
motor fibers from the body converge here as they move up into the cortex.
Given the relatively small size of the brainstem, it is unfortunately
possible to knock out nearly all of these motor tracts, leading to Bauby’s
I thought about the book and its author after encountering a patient
experiencing a similar tragedy. Like the French editor, she was relatively young. She
was a writer, too. She had collapsed in a supermarket and opened her eyes
to the cold and dark reality of complete paralysis, relying on a ventilator
to help her breathe. I saw her every morning for two weeks. I listened to
her heart and lungs or drew her blood. When she opened her right eye on a
regular basis, we asked our speech pathologists to help her communicate.
They trained the patient to look up for “yes” and down for “no.”
There were days when the patient was too exhausted to participate in these
exercises or when she had an infection, or seemed to decline and failed to
answer or understand basic questions asked of her. Her mother sat at bedside each day conversing with her and encouraging her. In these
situations we typically speak with family members about the goals of care for their
loved ones. What would the patient say if she could speak? Would she want
us to do everything we could to keep her alive, such as cutting a hole in
the throat, a
tracheostomy, so she could breathe without a breathing tube? Or would she want us to
withhold surgeries? These are always difficult discussions for doctors and
family members as we all attempt not only to predict what the patient
would want but also to separate ourselves from what we want. The mother,
however, did not hesitate — she asked us to do everything to keep her
What, indeed, would the patient say if we asked her? And what was she
experiencing at that very moment? Fortunately, Bauby left behind a view
into the world of locked-in patients. They are very much aware of
the world around them even if they cannot demonstrate it. Some of this
occurs within the imagination, as Bauby writes: “You can visit the woman
you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can
build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize
your childhood dreams and adult ambitions.” These fantasies can bring
relief to patients:
For pleasure, I have to turn to the vivid memory of
tastes and smells, an inexhaustible reservoir of sensations…. Now I cultivate
the art of simmering memories. You can sit down to a meal at any hours,
with no fuss or ceremony. If it’s a restaurant, no need to call
ahead…. Depending on my mood, I treat myself to a dozen snails, a plate of
Alsatian sausage with sauerkraut … or else I savor a simple soft-boiled egg
with fingers of toast and lightly salted butter. What a banquet!
But rumination can turn to tragic thoughts as well. Bauby thinks of
his ninety-two year old father who can no longer descend the staircase of
the apartment building. Bauby used to shave his father; now someone needs to shave Bauby. He watches his children play and feels them embrace him without
being able to respond.
Such helplessness leaves one vulnerable to the outside world, too. An
ophthalmologist examines Bauby without his consent — Bauby cannot tell
this physician to stop. He is aroused by the terrifying sight of a doctor
standing over him while sewing up his non-functional eye. After all, when a
patient lies in bed without speaking, it can be tempting to
see him or her as a specimen rather than as a human.
What is most disturbing, though, is the way life seems to march
on without Bauby. He writes,
I am fading away. Slowly but surely. Like the sailor who watches the home
shore gradually disappear, I watch my past recede. My old life still burns
within me, but more and more of it is reduced to the ashes of memory.
When doctors bring him to Paris for more specialized examinations, Bauby
notices the building where he used to work and people he used to know, all
engrossed in the day-to-day business of life, while he is seemingly frozen
in time: “The treetops foaming like surf against glass building fronts,
wisps of cloud in the sky. Nothing was missing, except me. I was
Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book is tremendous and beautiful not simply because
his story and words are so affecting. It gives voice to the patients we are
often tempted to brush off — there is a person within the heavy immobile
flesh. And if there is a book inside the mind of one, of course there are
books inside the minds of others. (However, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere,
great accomplishments are unnecessary to demonstrate the value
of a human life.)
locked-in syndrome is not a death sentence; nor is it necessarily a fate
worse than death. Patients can recover after such a devastating injury. The Guardian
published a story in 2012 about a patient who regained most of his motor function after being
locked in. A
1995 study of 11 patients with locked-in syndrome found
that all of the patients regained enough control of fingers or toes to use a digital switch.
In a 2003 study, authors
concluded that five- and ten-year survival rates for patients with stable
locked-in syndrome were 83% and 83% respectively (that number
dropped to 40% at twenty years). Of the patients in the study, only one wanted to die, but seven of them never even considered euthanasia, while six did but rejected it.
To become locked-in is not the end. This should give us pause about withholding aggressive treatment
from these patients. They are still very much with us, and with luck and
modern medicine perhaps we can bring parts of their bodies back.
As medical students and resident physicians gain experience they also gain
knowledge and confidence. Consequently, young trainees eventually reach a
level of comfort in speaking with families and patients about prognosis and
disease course. This is part of the purpose of training, as these
conversations happen so often that they are an integral part of practicing
medicine. But it isn’t certain that with experience and confidence also comes
Soon after finishing sign-out on a night shift I received a page. The
nurses told me that a patient’s daughter had arrived and wanted to speak
with me about her father. The patient was an elderly but relatively healthy
gentleman who had been admitted with abdominal pain. Multiple imaging
studies had shown little to account for his discomfort. But the pain was so
intense that he could not eat anything. Even going to the bathroom was
difficult — he held in his stool to avoid the agonizing act of defecating.
As a result, he became constipated, which then exacerbated the pain. Thus,
the medical team administered anti-inflammatory treatments, stool softeners, and IV
fluids as they searched for the etiology of this troublesome symptom.
The patient’s daughter asked me about the latest imaging studies and labs
as she sat holding her father’s hand. Buried to his chin under the covers,
the patient participated in the discussion, asking when he would be able to
eat and go to the bathroom easily again. I explained that all the tests had
been negative so far and we were unsure of what was going on. I then left the
room, and the daughter caught up to me in the hallway. She seemed worried,
speaking hurriedly and pleadingly: “How long do you think my father has
left to live? How much time do I have left with him? Should I start making
The questions took me aback. I had seen plenty of patients in the
intensive care unit
who were on the verge of death and they looked so different from her father
— a profound pallor, somnolence, lethargy, disinterest in conversation
and food. But this patient wanted to eat again, he wanted to see his
family, he wanted to watch basketball on TV, and he was interactive and
conversational. His cheeks certainly did not exhibit the deathly pale hue
of those crossing over to the other side. I assured the daughter of this:
“I don’t think you have to worry about that. The most important thing right
now is that we figure out what is going on. I can’t tell you how long he’s
going to live but I would be shocked if he had only days or weeks left.”
This interaction repeated itself for the next three nights, always with the
same diagnostic uncertainty. On further imaging there was evidence of some
abnormal fluid in the abdominal cavity. Interventional radiologists
extracted the fluid to test it for any cancerous or infectious cells, but it
would take perhaps a week or more for definitive results to come back. In
the meantime, the patient’s pain improved and he moved his bowels without
issue. Even though we didn’t yet have a diagnosis he seemed to be doing
incrementally better each day.
On the fourth night I again saw the daughter and she asked: “You don’t
think I should be planning the funeral for my father, do you? He’s not
going to pass in the next few days?” I understood why she was asking the
question — any child ought to be concerned for the well-being of a parent.
But I was also surprised because her father was on the mend. I told her
that if he continued to improve he would leave the hospital, and his primary
care doctor would follow up the lab results and see him in clinic.
At around 2 a.m. that same night, a voice over the hospital loudspeaker
echoed throughout the halls as I jumped out of my chair: “Code blue, 7th floor, code blue, 7th floor.” There was a
patient in cardiac arrest. I ran out of the workroom and met up with
another resident. Which patient was dying? On my way to the code I ran
through the patients on the coverage list that evening; I did not expect
anyone to pass away. As the other resident and I ran down the hall I saw
the code cart containing all the medical resuscitation equipment necessary
to treat cardiac arrest outside of the room I had visited every night for
the past four nights. My heart leapt out of my chest; I pleaded with some
higher power that it not be that patient. But it was.
The resident, nurses, and I immediately began CPR. The anesthesiologists
burst into the room and stuck a tube down the patient’s throat and into his
trachea to protect his airway as the respiratory therapist attached the
tube to a ventilator to help the patient breathe on his own. After multiple
rounds of CPR, his pulse returned. We wheeled the patient — attached to
tubes, and poles filled with intravenous fluids — to the ICU for closer
monitoring. He didn’t respond to our questions or poking and prodding, but
he was alive.
Alas, as soon as we got to the ICU, his heart once again
stopped beating and his IV line ceased working — his veins (which can
happen as we age) were friable and brittle, and the small vein carrying the
volume and force of the IV infusions burst. Without an IV we could not give
medications. We turned, then, to an
intraosseous (IO) line. This entails drilling a hole into the bone and infusing medications
through that hole. It is a proven method of administering medications when
physicians and nurses cannot obtain IV access. I opened the IO kit and
attached the drill to the IO needle, placing it on the shinbone and drilling. It
slid into the bone, I detached the drill, and hooked up the
IV tubing to the IO line jutting out of the patient’s bone. At this point,
the code had been going on for nearly 15 minutes and the patient’s family
had arrived. They watched as we furiously attempted to revive their loved
one. At some point a family member shouted “Stop, please, enough!” Time of
death: 2:45 a.m.
I sheepishly held my head down, avoiding eye contact with the family as
they sobbed. The medical team and nurses quietly left the room, leaving the
patient in peace. As I passed by the daughter, I could only say “I’m so
sorry” — little else would have sufficed. Not only did we not save him, but
night in and night out I had given the daughter a false impression that he
wouldn’t die. Perhaps, I wondered, I had been disingenuous in some way.
Either way, I was wrong.
Alas, physicians are wrong relatively often, and there is ample
evidence for this. In a systematic review in the
British Medical Journal in 2012, researchers found that each year up to 40,500 adult patients in American ICUs die with a misdiagnosis. The Journal of the American Medical Association published an analysis in 2009, concluding, among other things, that “while the exact prevalence of
diagnostic error remains unknown, data from autopsy series spanning several
decades conservatively and consistently reveal error rates of 10% to 15%.”
The American Journal of Medicine published a
separate analytic review article in 2008, concluding that diagnostic error occurs up to 15% of the time in most areas
of medicine. The authors further theorized that overconfidence often
accounts for at least some of the errors. These reports have reached a wide
audience in the laymen’s press as well. In 2015, the Washington Post published an article indicating that diagnostic errors affect 12 million adults each year. The
impacts of errors, as we see in the story above, don’t just involve the patient
but the patient’s families, too.
Though these statistics are shocking, it is almost impossible, from the
patient perspective, to look at them and subsequently be skeptical of everything a doctor says. After all, we are not only practically but also emotionally dependent on them: We want reassurance from our
physicians and we want definitive answers. As a patient, it is frustrating
to hear “It may or may not be cancer and we can’t be sure” or “I don’t know
how much longer she has left.” Indeed, when the path ahead of us is no
longer clear, we turn to physicians for answers because of their
experience. We want them to be the kinds of people none of us can
be — always right, always knowledgeable, always calm and composed. But they
are fallible, despite the impossibly difficult and long road they’ve
And what can we as physicians take away from this? Doctors want to be
the kinds of people their patients expect them to be. But the statistics
of medical errors are the reminders of how impossible that is; how many years of studying and
experience are necessary even in order to be competent; how difficult,
despite the many exams we take and pass, it is to apply knowledge
appropriately. Not only are we fallible, but the science we rely on is not
always helpful either. Indeed, the best studies are useful merely for inferring what will
probably happen — they do not tell us definitively what will happen to the
patient in front of us. Moreover,
scientific evidence does not exist for every treatment in every situation or every diagnosis in every
situation. Once again in medicine,
our ideal does not match with the real, and our preconceived notions are sometimes shattered in moments of frustration
and uncertainty. Perfection is unattainable, but we must
constantly seek it out, always aware of how out-of-reach it lies.
When patients and their families now ask me questions about prognosis or
treatment I always preface what I say with: “Nothing is 100% in medicine.”
Though I will be wrong again in my career and will, hopefully, learn from
my mistakes, I never want to give a false impression. We often tend to ignore uncertainty or wish it away, but we must always remind
ourselves, whether as patients or doctors, that no doctor and no science is perfect.
There are certain patients who never fade from a doctor’s memory — they make
an indelible imprint on one’s training. Thinking back on these patients and their respective hospitalizations is
like gazing through a pristine window pane on a clear, sunny day. Often they
stick in our memories because one becomes emotionally invested in
them or because there is some interesting disease or singular clinical
outcome. The former patients usually affect us more deeply.
|Blood cells from a patient with Leukemia
(Prof. Erhabor Osaro via Wikimedia – CC)
I can tell you her name, age, and favorite foods to eat and cook. I recall,
without difficulty, how many children she had, her religion, where she grew
up, traveled and met her husband. I can even recreate her hospital room in
my mind — family pictures across from her bed, a knitting kit on her
nightstand next to her laptop computer, a plastic storage bin with clothing
She was in her fifties and had been diagnosed with
leukemia, a cancer of the blood. There are different types of leukemia, but in
general, patients with leukemia have bone marrow that overproduces certain
infection-fighting cells, or
white blood cells. Some of these cells function normally, but many do not. They overcrowd the
marrow, preventing it from making red blood cells and platelets. If there is a high enough number of them, they clog up blood vessels. And
eventually, the cancer kills you.
Treatment of leukemia involves rounds of chemotherapy,
potent drugs that arrest cell growth or division by acting on a specific
stage in a cell’s reproductive cycle. Each of these drugs
targets different aspects of quickly dividing cancer cells. But they also
wreak havoc on the body’s normal cells, causing nausea and vomiting, hair loss,
heart damage, kidney damage, and liver damage. Unavoidably, the therapies for
leukemia have serious, sometimes intolerable side effects.
The goal of prescribing such potent medications is to wipe out all of the
cancer cells. But it is especially important to wipe out the “stem cancer
cell” — that is, the original cell or group of cells causing this tempest. If
you can’t kill those cells, you cannot cure the cancer; they divide and produce more defective, parasitic, and deadly neoplasms. For
certain patients a
bone marrow transplant is the best hope for a cure. Chemotherapy wipes out one’s own bone marrow
and cancer cells to make room for the transplant, which does not contain
the same cancer progenitors. The donor’s marrow must match the patient’s
marrow; the cells produced from the transplant must be sufficiently genetically similar to the patient’s or the white blood cells from the donor tissue will attack the patient’s own body.
Our patient had gone through multiple rounds of chemotherapy, all of which
failed. She had found a match for a bone marrow transplant, though, and was
going to try a new combination of chemotherapeutic drugs to wipe out her
bone marrow in preparation for the procedure. This process takes weeks. Thus, she lived
in the hospital, receiving family along with friends from church.
During the afternoons, after rounds, I would come by and chat with her if
she wasn’t too exhausted or sick. Our conversations wandered from religion to food, travel, and family. We talked about history, too. She was a Civil War buff
and had no trouble discussing her favorite historical figures from that era
and her favorite speeches.
She possessed a seemingly infinite amount of patience and kindness given the
circumstances. I never once heard her bemoan her situation. She wanted, I think, to be treated as she had always been
treated, even as the reality of her prognosis set in. If she hadn’t had children, she once mused to me, she would have given up after the last round of chemotherapy failed and opted for palliative care. But her
children were too young to lose their mother, and so she hoped to live on.
So we hoped with her, attempting just once more to extend her life.
At a certain point towards the end of the chemotherapy regimen, we extract
bone marrow from the patient and look at the marrow under the microscope
with a pathologist. A
hematologist aspirates the sample using a large needle and spreads it onto
an approximately three-inch-by-one-inch slide. The oncologist, pathologist,
residents, and students look at the small sample of tissue. Ideally, there are very few cells and almost no cancer cells.
Otherwise, the chemotherapy has failed and the transplant cannot be done.
As the pathologist moved the slide of our patient’s marrow around, large dysmorphic cells popped into view. There weren’t a lot of them, but they
were noticeable and they were cancerous. I heard the pathologist offer up a
disappointing, “Hmmm.” No, as it turns out, the chemotherapy had not killed
enough cancer cells to make the bone marrow transplant worthwhile. Tragically, the patient would soon die.
It is strange, is it not, that this human being’s outcome depended on an
inch-wide sample of bone marrow? We do not think of people as bundles of
organs and cells but as whole, complete beings. We think of people
abstractly or even holistically — character or personality, physical and
mental abilities, age. Who cares about the cells in their marrow? What
bearing does that have on the life to be lived? But it matters much more
than it seems. This small sample ends a life or gives fresh winds to a sick
life. It is counterintuitive to the way we think, but it is how we make
decisions in medicine. We treat the person but we also treat the disease.
If the disease still exists and runs rampant within the body, the person, no
matter how admirable, familiar, and recognizable, will perish.
|Illustration by William Sharp (National Library of Medicine)|
“What are some common causes of
The attending physician looked at me as we stood outside of the patient’s
room. It was as if she had turned a stage light on over my head while
medical students and residents silently waited at my flanks, watching with
bated breath. I stammered and said, “alcohol.”
“And what else?”
This time the question was directed at another medical
student. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was my first time experiencing
what everyone in the medical field calls “pimping.”
rounds in the hospital, attending physicians “pimp” — that is, publicly interrogate —
medical students and residents about various aspects of disease and disease
treatment. Physicians have practiced this method of teaching and testing
Dr. Frederick Brancati popularized the term in “The Art of Pimping,” a 1989 article for the Journal of the American Medical Association that satirized the practice. He humorously (and seemingly apocryphally) tells us how the word was first used in the seventeenth century by
Dr. William Harvey, the physician who discovered the circulatory system. Harvey allegedly
said of his students:
They know nothing of Natural Philosophy, these
pin-heads. Drunkards, sloths, their bellies filled with Mead and Ale. O
that I might see them pimped!
Brancati continues with his satirical history by relating how William Osler,
the father of modern medicine, used the method and its moniker in the
United States. Abraham Flexner, an educational reformer and eponymous author of the
Flexner Report, which detailed the failure of American medical schools to teach science
properly, supposedly described Osler’s method in his diary:
Rounded with Osler today.
Riddles house officers with questions. Like a Gatling gun. Welch says
students call it ‘pimping.’ Delightful.
(For what it’s worth, neither the Oxford English Dictionary nor Merriam-Webster list this usage of the word. But one irked respondent to Brancati’s article offered an alternate etymology, arguing that pimping is actually a malapropism of pumping, meaning “to question persistently.” The writer insisted on correcting the record, “Lest this word, possibly used as a sensational catchword, become a neologism.”)
Pimping, though used often in the hospital, does not comprise the bulk of
medical education. Prior to the third year of medical school, a student’s
knowledge is tested with a plethora of multiple-choice exams. Some of these
are higher-stakes than others. For example, one must pass Step 1, the first of three exams
comprising the medical licensing process, in order to apply for residency,
and one’s score determines where one trains.
It might seem, then, that pimping takes a back seat to such exams. But in
reality they complement and build on each other. Given that Step 1 is a
multiple-choice test, if you can recognize the answer then you can get the
question right — you don’t have to be able to recall it from memory.
pimping takes medical education to a different level. Not only does one
have to recall the precise answer from memory when being pimped, but one has
to do so in a kind of theater, in front of the whole medical team and,
occasionally, the patient.
To answer these unpredictable questions correctly, one must know a great deal and
demonstrate that knowledge under great stress. This is very
difficult indeed. The cellular and sub-cellular aspects of human biology are
dizzyingly complex. Proteins, hormones, cell membranes, hemoglobin, acids,
bases, and many more players all interact with each other in different ways.
The biochemical and cellular processes merge together into systems like the
cardiovascular and nervous systems. One could study these systems
for years and still not be comfortable with them. And they all affect each other. The kidney can compensate for a respiratory issue. The
respiratory system can change because of a musculoskeletal issue. One has
to understand these interactions to treat disease. Consequently, a medical
education must be broad and deep.
How does one memorize or even recognize all of this information? One method
involves creating mnemonics or poems. This is a perennial trick used not
just by medical trainees but by religious groups as well.
article for Aleph, Maud Kozodoy explores this technique within the medieval Jewish tradition. Medieval Jewish scholars used poetry to memorize religious and medical
facts. As Kozodoy writes, “versification facilitates memorization.”
Moreover, “verse preserves the integrity of a given text or, putting the
point negatively, reduces the possibility of its corruption.” Galen, the famous Greek
physician of the second century AD, recognized
drug prescriptions in verse form are more useful than those written
in prose with a view not only to memory, but also to the accuracy of the
proportion in the mixture of ingredients.
Kozodoy offers another example, translating from the Hebrew a verse by Yannai, an Israelite poet circa the sixth century AD, “based on the rabbinic dictum that the 248 limbs/organs of the body correspond to the 248 positive commandments given at Mount Sinai”:
Then, two hundred and forty-eight limbs / You fashioned in man and attached
to him. // You chose thirty for the soles of [his] feet / accustoming them
for good and for evil. // You decreed ten for [his] feet / so that they
would not slip…in the receiving of the ten commandments.
Modern medical education draws from this rich tradition of versification.
Though we don’t typically memorize poems in medical school or residency, we do come
up with short phrases that allow us to retain important information. Take,
for example, the side effects of an anticholinergic
medication like diphenhydramine (Benadryl), which blocks acetylcholine receptors in the nervous system. Most students
and physicians memorize the overdose effects using the following short
Hot as a hare, blind as a bat, dry as a bone, red as a beet, mad as a
When you overdose on anticholinergic medications your body temperature
increases, your pupils dilate, your skin dries up and flushes, and you can
become delirious. We try, whenever possible, to find mnemonics like these when studying for exams, as they often make memorization easier.
Another method that helps us memorize information, though it sometimes
goes unrecognized by its victims, is being the target of pimping. This makes pimping both a
way to test knowledge — as in the story that opened this post — and a way to accumulate
An attending physician once pimped me about the treatment for a
pulmonary embolism, a clot that has migrated to the lungs and cut off blood supply, leading to
rapid deterioration and death. One of my answers was to use
nitroglycerin, a drug that causes vasodilation.
But I was very much wrong. The attending
immediately said to me in front of the whole team, “you’ve just killed your
patient.” Because nitroglycerin dilates vessels, it decreases the pressure
of blood being pushed into the heart, and consequently decreases the force
with which the blood is pushing into the pulmonary circulation and
bypassing the embolism. If you do this, the body can no longer push blood
past the clot, and you can die.
I will now never forget this fact. It
was a stark reminder of how much more I had to learn, especially given how
terrifying the consequences of my treatment would have been had I used it
on a real patient.
Pimping is equal in potency to poetry and
mnemonics in searing facts into one’s memory.
Recently, there has been some controversy over pimping as an educational
method. Dr. Dhruv Khullar, a physician at NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital,
wrote in a post for the New York Times’s Well blog that this style of teaching, in which we are only expected to demonstrate how
many facts we know, “encourages us to learn to show, not grow — to project
confidence, and dismiss uncertainty.” Suzanne Gordon, a
medical journalist, wrote in
a blog post for the British Medical Journal that pimping discourages health care providers from admitting mistakes:
If a fundamental
communications skill learned in medical training is to confidently
communicate knowledge that one does not actually possess, never express
doubt, and avoid at all cost embarrassing a medical superior then patient
safety truly becomes a mission impossible.
But this seems to miss the point. Pimping, if not done
maliciously, is an effective exercise in testing and teaching. After four years of medical school and two years of residency, I still get pimped and there
is still much that I do not know. Every question directed toward
a student or resident is also a lesson in humility, about how much there is
What we need instead, as Dr. Khullar argues, is a shift in attitude about what it means to get
As part of the learning process in medical school, students should be
encouraged to fail, and to learn from those failures so that they better
succeed as physicians. As a 2012 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General demonstrated, children actually perform better in school if they are told
that failure is a normal part of the learning process. They have a better
working memory and are more effective in solving difficult problems.
Failure also teaches us to adapt because we remember what to do when the
same situation arises again. When I face a real patient with a pulmonary
embolism, I am certain I will not give that patient nitroglycerin.
There is a relatively small and brief price to pay for getting a question wrong while
being pimped. But the stakes are far higher when you are the one making the
decision about a real human being. And to learn from such failures as a
medical student is in the best interests of both the budding physician and of his or her future patient.
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to clarify that the poem by Yannai was not specifically written for use in medical education.
The imposing mountain of Kilimanjaro in the East African country of
Tanzania stands alone amidst the surrounding flatlands and swallows up the
horizon with its snow-capped peaks. At once alluring and intimidating, its
enormous size provides the kind of thrill and sense of wonder that a child must
feel when it becomes conscious of the seemingly infinite universe.
This impression, I imagine, drove explorers a hundred and fifty years ago to
try to climb
the mountain’s approximately 19,000-foot
peak. In 1861, for example, Baron Karl Klaus von der Decken, a German
attempted to summit Kilimanjaro
with English geologist Richard Thornton. Poor weather prevented the
completion of their trek. A year later, von der Decken tried again, but once more the weather stymied his ascent.
Others made further unsuccessful efforts in the
decades that followed, but in 1889 a German geologist, Hans Meyer, and an Austrian gym teacher and mountaineer, Ludwig Purtscheller, became the first to reach Kilimanjaro’s highest peak.
Since then, thousands have traveled to Tanzania to brave the altitude
sub-zero temperatures and to climb the mountain. A
friend and I, during our last year of
school, were two of those people. We wanted to do something truly unusual, a trip that
would take us as far as possible away from the hospital to a world
never get a chance to see again. It is not unusual for fourth-year
students to take a trip like this — a last hurrah of sorts before
graduation. And, of course, one hopes that after separating oneself
from medicine one would return to the hospital world refreshed,
motivated, and ready to begin the grueling process of residency.
|My friend and our guide, about two days before reaching the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Photo: Aaron Rothstein
One of the most notable aspects of climbing Kilimanjaro is of course
altitude. Because the partial pressure of oxygen in the air
one ascends, tissues within the body require higher volumes of blood
the same amount of oxygen. For comparison, at Mount Everest Base
Camp on the Nepalese side (at 5,360 meters or 17,600 feet elevation),
the partial pressure of oxygen is half of what it is at sea level;
Kilimanjaro stands at around 5,900 meters or 19,300 feet. At these
heights the body must adjust to compensate for the drastic
decrease in oxygen availability. During the earliest stages of exposure to
high altitude, the respiratory rate increases to take in more oxygen, the
heart rate goes up to deliver more oxygen to the tissues, and the blood
concentrates oxygen-carrying hemoglobin by getting rid of excess fluid
(this is called
altitude diuresis and it is why one urinates more at higher altitudes). Then, if one
spends several months at high altitudes, the body further adjusts by
increasing the number of red blood cells
through the release of erythropoietin,
a hormone that acts on the bone marrow to increase red blood cell
The way exposure to high altitude manifests itself on a step-to-step basis
is remarkable. As my friend and I ascended, it became more and more
difficult to hike. Shortness of breath plagued us at slight inclines or
fast-paced walks. Eventually, at the top, the slow slog felt
like a sprint, our bodies desperately crying out for air. But it wasn’t
just this odd sensation that was new to us. Climbing at these
altitudes comes with certain risks, some of which can be deadly and which we got to experience up close.
The night we began our hike we awoke close to midnight, unzipped
the tent, and stepped out into the bitter cold night air. The
stars playfully glistened in the clear sky reaching out in all
directions. We drank hot tea, ate some porridge, and
headed on our way. Despite the brightness of the moon, we needed
to see the details on the path before us, especially as ice covered
inch of ground. In
the distance we saw other trekkers only by the small lights of their
headlamps, tens of them slowly ascending, enveloped by darkness.
But there was one light that seemed to be getting closer rather than
farther. And it seemed to be trembling, its owner unsteady. It was an
unsettling sight, but we couldn’t keep looking as we were in the midst of trying not to fall, while also sipping water from our backpacks almost continuously so that it wouldn’t
freeze. When we finally managed to look up
again, the light was much closer and we made out two people in the pitch
black: one was a Tanzanian guide and the other was a Caucasian hiker leaning
on the guide for support. As they passed us the hiker slipped, barely able
to stand on his own feet. We turned around and asked what had happened: “He
fell and hit his head and a team is on the way to come help him down,” the
guide answered. It seemed unusual that a head injury would make a patient
this unsteady. But there were no medical supplies, no places
for a med-evac to land, and no oxygen tanks. The only option for the
hiker was to get down to base camp as quickly as possible. So the patient’s guide continued
on, supporting the man as they descended the mountain.
What had actually happened was something far more serious. The hiker had
High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). People who live at low altitudes and suddenly ascend are at risk for
this particularly affliction and it can occur at altitudes anywhere
over 8,200 feet. Symptoms initially include altered mental status,
unsteadiness or dizziness, nausea, vomiting, headache, and drowsiness,
progressing over hours to days. With decreased availability of oxygen, there is
an increase in the body’s stress response leading to vessel dilation and
increased blood flow to the brain. Pressure increases within the
vasculature of the brain as autoregulation of pressure is impaired. Fluid
leaks out from the cerebral vessels, creating higher and higher pressures
within the fixed compartment of the skull. With no place left to go, the
brain herniates downward through the foramen magnum
(the hole in the base of the skull through which the spinal cord connects with the brain). This will cause death.
The best treatment for HACE is to descend as quickly as possible to lower
altitude. Supplementary oxygen can help, as can steroids (to
decrease swelling), but these are merely temporary fixes to a deadly
problem. And that night, the climber, with no oxygen, no steroids, and no
chance of descending in time, died from HACE shortly after we passed him. On
our descent we found out the news and even saw his body. A blanket
covered the outline of a human form, still, silent, with no chest rise or
The moment, in some respect, tainted our trip. Was there more we could have
done? It appeared to be a hopeless situation and, in the thick of that
night, gasping for air in the freezing cold as we let the man and his guide move on, we wondered if there was more. Nevertheless, short of helping him down, which would not have happened in
time to prevent his demise, there was no equipment, no medication, no
treatment we could have offered.
|Mt. Kilimanjaro, about one day before reaching the summit. Our path took us around to the other side of the mountain before our final ascent.
Photo: Aaron Rothstein
In the 2015 New York Times article
Is There a Doctor in the Marriage?, the writer Anya Groner discusses her husband’s grueling hours as a doctor.
After he assists with a medical emergency during a plane ride,
she realizes that he is, in some sense, always on call. Work is ever present. Whether there is turmoil in one’s thoughts
about a patient or whether one is being asked advice by
friends or family, the profession demands constant alertness and
preparedness. Even on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, which only a century and a half ago hardly anyone dared to climb, medicine followed us. If we have any sort of
conscience, there is no escaping the practice of medicine. This is why we must
love what we do, but it is also why we must be prepared to live with it wherever we go.
I carry the plenum of proof, and everything else, in my face.
—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
The importance of the face in human interactions from the day we are born
cannot be overstated.
Infants, even if they are blind, communicate their feelings to
their parents in large part through facial expressions. For children and adults, so much of what we comprehend about people’s feelings
involves interpreting a glance, a smirk, or raised eyebrows. And there has been research suggesting that our own facial expressions can affect how we feel — what is called the “facial feedback hypothesis.”
I didn’t fully understand the importance of facial communication, though,
until I met patients with illnesses — such as
Parkinson’s Disease (PD),
schizophrenia — that drastically alter a person’s ability to express thoughts and feelings
through small movements of facial muscles. When meeting patients afflicted in this manner, I don’t know how
they receive my questions or explanations. I don’t know if they’re upset. I
can’t tell what they’re going to say next. The emotionless face, so empty
and devoid of character, can be frightening; a person
seemingly unaffected by emotion is capable of almost anything. Of course, these
patients experience emotions of all kinds. Their faces just don’t exhibit
Leon Kass writes in Toward a More Natural Science about the
importance of emotions expressed through the face, for instance in blushing. This can help us to think about patients with
limited facial communication.
Blushing, like many facial expressions, “is not under our control.” Moreover, blushing is the “involuntary outward bodily manifestation of a very
complex psychophysical phenomenon.” Mental states induce blushing: shyness,
modesty, embarrassment, shame. Many of us blush when we’ve done something
wrong, know we’ve done something wrong, and are scolded for doing so. It is,
in certain respects, a public proclamation of shame. Similarly, the
furrowing of the brow, a smile, and a frown are also public manifestations of
mental states. All
this indicates that we are social beings and cognizant of those
around us. To wit, Kass argues that blushing requires a notion of the self,
a concern of how one appears to others, and an “awareness that one is on
The same is not always true about every facial expression, but
it is certainly applicable in most circumstances. When we laugh at someone
else’s joke, or cry when wronged in some way, we can do so alone. But more
frequently we do so in front of others and in response to others. In the
case of crying, we may try to be alone when we sob because we are concerned
about appearing fragile or weak. With smiling or laughing, we are
recognizing that someone else said something funny. These are social
reactions that require cognizance or acknowledgement of other human beings, and many of our facial expressions take place within the context of
social relationships. “The face,” Kass writes, “is not only the organ of
self-expression and self-presentation, the source of our voice and
transmitter of our moods; it also contains the chief organs for beholding
Because of the significance of the face in our social interactions, it is
“most highly regarded, both in the sense of most looked at and in
the sense of most esteemed.” Attention, wanted and unwanted, centers on the
face. Yes, some superficial aspects of ourselves can reveal much
beneath the surface: our deepest worries, fears, and joys. Such an
understanding ought to give us new appreciation for the kinds of
difficulties patients without facial expressions confront. They are
handicapped in their interactions with others. They inadvertently block a
vital mode of communication. They cannot indicate how they feel without
using words. As physicians we treat the symptomatic aspects of diseases
like Parkinson’s, but we cannot change someone’s face; even while patients
are on their PD medications, their facial deficits persist. It is one of
those debilitating aspects of illness that one can easily forget when thinking about people who suffer from these illnesses but that one cannot ignore when facing them in person.
People sometimes assume that every doctor feels a calling or has a special
skill for one area of medicine or another. But the truth is very
different for most doctors.
|Old operating theater in London
Wikimedia Commons (Mike Peel, CC BY-SA 4.0)
When students begin medical school they don’t actually know what medicine entails. Maybe they’ve followed physicians around or worked in a lab. But that is completely distinct from being
in a hospital for twelve to fourteen hours a day writing notes, calling
consults, rounding on patients, operating, or delivering babies. And even
when young students do see these things, they
usually watch from afar and don’t fully understand what’s going on. The
hierarchy, the language, and the rapid exchange of information remain a
Nevertheless, matriculating medical students still have ideas about what
specialties they want to practice. Walk around an auditorium during an
orientation and most budding physicians will say they’re interested in one
field or another. This is completely understandable; something motivates
people to apply to medical school. I thought seriously about
becoming an emergency-medicine doctor. I had worked as an EMT in New York and loved the excitement of
emergencies, the rush of adrenaline, and the range of patient presentations.
But I didn’t really know what it was like to work in an emergency room for
a twelve-hour shift.
Once medical school starts, things slowly change. As they study the
biological systems and dissect in the anatomy lab, some students realize
that they now feel dispassionate towards what they once loved. Suddenly, the eye
or the heart or the skin is not as interesting as the lungs or the brain or
the intestinal system. Granted, this is all still theoretical — it
is early, and the students have not been inside the hospital yet. But inklings
arise and ideas take hold. I enjoyed many of the educational blocks during
medical school and even had a particular affinity for hematology and
gastroenterology, while taking a dislike, surprisingly, toward neurology (I am now a
It is during the
third year of medical school when professional ambitions take shape, as students work in the hospital and
clinic. They rotate through general surgery, psychiatry, emergency
medicine, and neurology, among other specialties, getting a quick but deep
sense about how these areas work. They participate in surgeries, clinic
hospital codes. Decisions about a future specialty often form during these samplings.
But there is often much more to those decisions. I liked nearly everything during third year. I found the
operating room fascinating. You stand at the operating table and
assist the surgery residents and attending as they open up the
patient and take out parts of the intestine or the gallbladder. You
peer into a living human body in real time. You see the problem; you fix or
remove it; and then you sew the patient’s skin back together. Other
specialties are similarly awe-inspiring. On my obstetrics rotation I
delivered babies. In the emergency room, I participated in
trauma codes and watched the effects of
treating drug overdoses. There is so much to marvel at in medicine that each rotation is appealing
in some way. How can a student settle on one specialty?
When faced with this impasse, another deciding factor is often
a teacher or mentor.
After all, the word “doctor” comes from the Latin verb docere, which means “to teach.” The degrees we receive when we graduate from
medical school read M.D., or Medicinae Doctor — “teacher
of medicine.” So when we speak of a
doctor’s purpose it is implied in the word that the purpose is not just to heal the sick but to teach the
next generation of doctors, and also one’s patients. Notice this passage from the
I swear by Apollo The Healer…. To hold my teacher in this art equal to my
own parents; to make him partner in my livelihood; when he is in need of
money to share mine with him; to consider his family as my own brothers,
and to teach them this art, if they want to learn it, without fee or
indenture; to impart precept, oral instruction, and all other instruction
to my own sons, the sons of my teacher, and to indentured pupils who have
taken the physician’s oath, but to nobody else.
|Image via Flickr|
These lines that deal with the doctor-student relationship come before the parts about
the doctor-patient relationship. It is one of the few professions left in this country that
still functions as an apprenticeship (somewhat similar, in a few respects, to being a Ph.D.
student under an adviser). One studies a specific topic very intensely for
an extended period of time with a group of professionals who teach you how
to do what they do. This means that who teaches you matters as much as what you’re
When I rotated through neurology, the subject area excited me, but I was particularly impressed by everything about
the doctors. They took the time to explain things to students, which in the
busy context of the hospital and clinic isn’t always a priority. They
treated patients with great respect and kindness. They knew an impressive
amount about the subject and beyond. I felt inspired. Though many
other physicians in internal medicine, pediatrics, and elsewhere were
similarly impressive, my experiences were more mixed in those departments.
This at least was my unique experience; colleagues of
mine reached different conclusions.
The physician teachers also affect the culture of each department. For example, emergency medicine doctors are frequently seen as adrenaline
junkies. They love going rock climbing, bungee jumping, racing in triathlons,
and so forth. This is not true across the board, but one likely finds a
higher proportion of people who have those hobbies in emergency medicine. Specialties fit certain personalities or interests. I found that more
neurologists shared my interests — many of them study human consciousness,
autonomy, and free will, which tie into my fascination with the humanities.
The last element that helps medical students choose a specialty is
lifestyle, or how much time one has outside of the hospital. Surgeons
seemingly live at work even when they’ve graduated from residency programs.
Surgeries can be long and tedious; unexpected disasters occur during
operations; patients need emergency surgeries; and many post-operative
patients need close monitoring to make sure there are no complications. Pediatricians, by contrast,
tend to have much more normal lifestyles. They can work in an outpatient clinic
from, say, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Any child with an emergency goes to the emergency room, not
to the outpatient clinic, and pediatric patients tend not to have as many
chronic, difficult-to-manage illnesses as adults (like heart disease or high blood
pressure). Pediatricians focus more on preventative measures,
such as well visits and vaccines. As a pediatrician it is much easier to keep up with
family or hobbies outside of medicine. I loved surgery, but I could not see
myself putting in the hours to do it every single day for the rest of my
life. Neurology, on the other hand, like pediatrics, often involves a more
And this is how we choose: subject material, mentor and teacher experiences,
department personalities, and lifestyle. But the truth is that
many of us who go into medicine could be happy in a number of specialties,
which is an important perspective to have. It means that we love, broadly,
the subject and practice of medicine, and that our curiosity about disease
processes and treatments does not start and stop in one specialized silo or
another, just as most diseases do not stop in one body part or another. It’s what makes medicine such an enthralling and difficult field.
I recently wrote a short essay for Public Discourse about the “death with dignity”
movement. In the piece, titled “All Death is Death Without Dignity,” I compare the palliative-care movement — which seeks to alleviate the physical pain of death, often in the context of hospice care — to the physician-assisted suicide movement and
find the differences in their respective descriptions of death telling. I quote somewhat extensively from the piece here, in order to then offer some additional thoughts on why the phrase “death with dignity” is a problem.
It has become common to talk of “death with dignity” in the policy world. There’s a
Death with Dignity Act in Oregon, which permits physician-assisted suicide. There’s a
Death with Dignity Act in Washington, which also legalizes physician-assisted suicide in certain circumstances. A Death with Dignity National Center exists in
Portland, OR, a nonprofit that advocates for patients to “make their own end-of-life decisions, including how they die” — its website is plastered with
images of smiling faces. The message, it seems, is that if one can control how one dies or when, the dying process is somehow less disturbing, awful, and
humiliating. Instead, it can be dignifying.
Conversely, when dealing with end-stage cancer patients and palliative-care physicians in the hospital I rarely hear the “death with dignity” phrase used;
more often I hear a palliative-care doctor say, “we want him (or her) to be comfortable.” It is a marked difference between the palliative-care movement
and the assisted-suicide movement. In hospice, there is a resignation to the uneasiness and difficulty that comes with any death. With palliation, nurses
and doctors can only free the patient from pain but not from the indignity of dying.
And why does choosing the way one dies have no relevance to whether or not a death is dignified?
Death is not simply a part of life but the end of human life — the end, in some sense, of an entire world. It is the transformation of a living member of our
species into an immobile mass of flesh with no potential for life again. Rabbinic Jewish authorities recognized this in the Mishnah, an extensive
commentary on Jewish law, when they wrote,
“anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world.”
Thus, not only are the physical manifestations of death ignoble and viscerally disturbing but, in principle, the end of an individual is tragic, too….
Death and dying detract from life by ending it. There are more or less disturbing ways to pass (you can die while someone is breaking your ribs doing CPR
or you can die without that), but none of them is truly dignified. And choosing to preempt death using physician-assisted suicide doesn’t change this. In
truth, there is no such thing as death with dignity. There is only somber tragedy, as your body lies exposed to the world’s Hobbesian bacteria and insects.
I think there is an important debate to be had about whether assisted suicide should be available in certain, very rare circumstances. But that is a
separate discussion from the point I am making here, which is that the term “death with dignity” is inaccurate and misleading. The phrase changes our whole
concept of death — it is a change that puts a positive spin on dying, a change that detracts from the somber aspects of the end of life.
This deceptive use of language reminds me of George Orwell, who focused some of his sharpest criticism on the use of language and how it changes our
perception of events and ideas. In his famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” he condemns the “tendency of modern prose … away from concreteness.” Specifically, Orwell exposes the misuse of euphemisms common in war propaganda — for instance talking about sending people to prison and death camps as the “elimination of unreliable
elements.” Euphemisms can obfuscate the gravity and odiousness of an action, thus creating a false appearance so powerful that it can become tolerable, even appealing.
In 1984, Orwell offers a similar warning. The totalitarian government of Oceania uses its own language called Newspeak, destroying
most of the English language to make way for abbreviations and vague terminology — “cutting the language down to the bone.” As one character explains, “the great wastage is in the verbs and
adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well.” By manipulating the language, the government of Oceania manipulates the way people think, specifically the political and moral decisions they make. One of its most effective tools is the creation of catchy slogans that utterly distort reality: “war is peace,” “ignorance is strength,” and so forth.
I am not saying that the “Death with Dignity” movement
is an attempt at mind control, like in the police state of 1984. Nor am I arguing that there is only one right way to express an idea. But when it comes to framing an argument
or the context of a debate, we should be very careful when we use language that assumes certain principles that subtly distort reality. In this particular case, the phrase “death with dignity” assumes that death can be dignifying. At its core,
however, death is nothing less than awful:
Indeed, the concept of “death with dignity” is a euphemism for what is one of the most heart-wrenching, difficult, unsettling, and undignified events of
human existence. I think of that patient who chose to make his death comfortable and the image is disturbing rather than heartening. Where is the dignity
in lying in a bed with flies buzzing around one’s head, vulnerable and lifeless?