Bigotry, Medicine, and Pittsburgh

“You’re one of them wealthy people, from that wealthy family — what are
they called? The Rothbergs?”

“You mean the Rothschilds?” I asked.

“Yeah they’re the ones. You’re related to them?”

“No, sir. My last name is Rothstein — different family but same religion.”

Most of the time I don’t hear about race or religion in medicine but often
enough I do have interactions with patients about my religion that make me
wince. In another instance I saw a patient after a large surgery. I
introduced myself and asked him how he was doing. “I’m okay,” he responded.
Then, after a pregnant pause, he looked at my ID badge, then my face, and asked, “You’re Jewish, right?”

“Yes, I am,” I responded.

“I have great respect for the Jewish people. You know Jesus was Jewish, right?”

“Yes, I did know that.”

“But you don’t believe Jesus was the Messiah, right? You know, Jesus is our
Lord and Savior and he performed incredible miracles while he was alive.
Did you know that?”

“Yes, I’ve read some of the New Testament and I’ve spoken with Christians
about their beliefs.”

“Well, then, why not believe in Jesus? He built on Judaism. His thinking
revolutionized religion. It is the latest prophecy, the latest and truest
Word of God. Would you be interested in seeking out Jesus?”

“I appreciate the offer but I’m comfortable with my own religion.”

“Well, you should convert. It’s the only way to seek the real Truth. Jesus
is the Messiah and if you don’t convert you won’t be going to heaven.”

“Thanks, but I’m okay. Now, how’s your surgical site doing? Are you still in
any pain?”

Sometimes it even goes beyond this. There was a patient I saw regularly in
the hospital who would intermittently get aggressive, annoyed, or
anxious. The nurses called me to talk him down. One evening he was
particularly upset about being in the hospital. I entered his room as the
nurse was leaving. “Tell that n***er to leave me alone!” he shouted.

“Excuse me, that is inappropriate. We do not use that kind of language.”

He looked at my name badge and shouted, “Well guess what? I’m Hitler, so I
think you should leave.”

This is not to mention a co-resident who was told by a patient,
“You’re such a Jew.” Or another patient who told a Jewish co-resident,
“All you want from me is a pound of flesh” — a reference to The Merchant of Venice, where Shylock, a Jew, lends money to a Christian and demands a pound of his flesh as security.

These experiences and others I’ve had run the range from threats of
violence to humorous to uncomfortable, but there is a theme behind them.
Unfortunately, my experiences are not unique. All physicians take care of
racist or bigoted patients. In January 2018, the Wall Street Journal
published a piece

on racist patients, quoting doctors discussing their experiences. In a 2017 blog post by the
American Academy of Family Physicians, multiple physicians retold their stories of interacting with bigoted
patients. Dr. Lachelle Dawn Weeks, a resident at Brigham and Women’s
Hospital in Boston, wrote a

short 2017 essay for STAT News
 chronicling her experience with racism. She concludes that

in an ideal
world, hospitals would categorically disavow cultural and religious
discrimination. Hospital administrators would publicly refuse to cater
to culturally biased demands and express a lack of tolerance for derogatory
comments towards physicians and staff as a part of patient non-discrimination policies.

Dr. Dorothy Novick, a pediatrician,

wrote in a 2017 Washington Post op-ed
 that “When I treat racist patients but fail to adequately address the effect of
their words and actions on my colleagues, I not only avoid teachable
moments; I condone hate.” Dr. Farah Khan

wrote in 2015 in The Daily Beast
, denouncing bigotry she’s faced in the hospital. She asserts, “We should be
taking strides within the medical community to break down unfair judgments
and racist ideals.” Moreover, “Of all the things that I had imagined brown
could do for me, I never really expected it to make me feel out of place
both inside and outside of the hospital.”

These interactions do make a physician’s job difficult. Patients refuse
treatment from a particular physician or verbally abuse him or her on the basis of race or religion. A physician cannot offer
an argument against this to assuage the patient. And it is
difficult to hear or experience these insults and epithets after
years of training to help others.

What, then, ought to be done? Many of the physicians I cited above offer
condemnation and resolve not to tolerate racist behavior. But in
practicality these are non-specific, anodyne proposals. Of course hospitals, and we, should condemn such behaviors. But what does that mean in terms of our conduct in the hospital?

In an earlier post, I’ve written about the more general difficulties physicians regularly experience because of frustrated patients, who may swear at, insult, or even slap us, and since writing those words I’ve been punched or swung at by
patients multiple times. I’ve been accused of not caring about my patients,
of being a bad physician. This is part of the difficulty of the profession.
Physicians and nurses bear the brunt of patients’ frustrations or hatred. And while we
can tell patients that their language is inappropriate, part of being a
physician is offering our services when they are ill, despite
how we might feel about them or they might feel about
us.

This is nowhere more true than during war. As I’ve previously written about the role of the Hippocratic Oath in wartime, “The physician … is responsible only for the good
of the patient no matter what uniform that patient may wear. The Oath makes
no exception for wartime or for the treatment of an enemy.”

Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh / CTO HENRY (Creative Commons)

One of the most recent and heartening examples of such principled medical
practice was after the attack in Pittsburgh this past week, where an anti-Semitic gunman killed 11 Jews in a synagogue, screaming

“All Jews must die.” After being injured in a gunfight with police
officers, the gunman arrived at a hospital

where Jewish doctors and nurses took care of him
.

Yes, there are bigots and racists who not only insult those who are
different but murder them. However, in the face of such hatred we must
continue to offer the patient treatment. To treat patients in their time of
acute need despite what they’ve done or said is part of our professional
responsibility.

This may strike some as a deeply unsatisfying conclusion. Where is
justice? Where is the punishment for these people? Why shouldn’t they face
consequences for their hatred? But we see these
patients for a brief moment in their lives. Distributing punishment is not
our purpose, nor will a refusal to treat them change the way they feel or
act. In fact, a physician is far more likely to change such behavior and to
make an impact by treating the patient. After that, we trust our legal
system to distribute punishment, and hope the prejudiced patients figure the
rest out themselves.

When Doctors Are Wrong

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
accuracy.

***

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
funeral arrangements?”

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
traversed.

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.

Transhumanists are searching for a dystopian future

As part of a Washington Post series this week about transhumanism, our own Charles T. Rubin offers some thoughts on why transhumanists are so optimistic when the pop-culture depictions of transhumanism nearly always seem to be dark and gloomy:

What accounts for this gap between how transhumanists see themselves — as rational proponents of a cause, who seek little more than to speed humanity along a path it already follows — and how they are seen in popular culture — as dangerous conspirators against human welfare? Movies and TV need drama and conflict, and it is possible that transhumanists just make trendy villains. And yet the transhumanists and the show writers are alike operating in the realm of imagination, of possible futures. In this case, I believe the TV writers have the richer and more nuanced imaginations that more closely resemble reality.

You can read the entire article here.

the end of book reviews?

By which I mean not the reviewing of books but the kind of newspaper section called a book review, as in the New York Times Book Review or the Washington Post Book World, which may be closing down. I am not sure how much to be worried about this. For much of their history newspapers have not reviewed books at all — going back to the eighteenth century and through almost all of the nineteenth, book reviewing was largely the province of other kinds of periodicals — and few newspapers have ever had whole sections devoted to book reviews. Are we about to see considerably fewer book reviews altogether? Or are we just faced with a kind of dispersal of book reviewing into more and more varied locations?

UPDATE: See Alex Massie’s post on this subject from 2007.