It’s a hot afternoon in Washington, D.C. and a young boy buys a pickle from an ice cream and hot dog vendor, expecting cool relief from the sweet vegetable.
Instead, a flood of PCP and ecstasy floods his system, causing him to go into convulsions. By the time EMTs arrive, the boy has stopped respiration. While they are able to restore his breathing, and the hospital stabilizes him further, he does not wake up.
Two of the three neurologists to examine him are certain he is completely and totally brain dead. The third sees some electrical activity, and cannot say whether there is total brain death, but agrees that the child will never wake up.
Doctors wish to take the boy off life support; In their eyes, he is dead. He cannot survive without a ventilator and his heart needs assistance to beat. But the boy’s parents frantically demand doctors do everything possible to keep their son alive; they are Black Muslims, and believe that until Allah calls their son home, they must keep the child alive.
What’s a doctor to do?
If you have a clear idea, let me know. Robert Veatch, the ethicist, philosopher and professor asking my class this question, doesn’t have a comfortable answer, and neither do any of us.
The class, however, is not at the University of Washington. I have left the school, and even left the West coast — I’m now in Albany, New York, doing a slow boil in the high heat and humidity. They assure me the weather is not normal; I suspect they’re just trying to pull one on a Seattle girl.
I’ve spent the past six months using this space to rant and rave and think aloud, to provoke you (hello, pharmacy students!) into your own thoughts about ethics and medicine. I hope you’ve read what I’ve said and agreed, wanted to know more — or disagreed violently, and wanted to learn more.
I hope that at least a few readers decide to go down to the Health Sciences Center and take some of the medical history and ethics courses offered, maybe for a minor, maybe to join me along this road towards becoming a specialist in bioethics.
I’ve taken stands here that I don’t necessarily agree with, and I’ve worn my position on my sleeve. If you know me, you probably know which is which. For this last column, I’ll be obvious about having my heart and gratitude in the wide open.
I hear it’s tradition that your last column is a bit of reflection and goodbye. My time at The Daily has been one where I’ve had the chance, thanks to my dear friend Maureen Trantham, to explore some ideas about medicine, ethics and popular culture outside the formal academic setting. It’s been a wonderful opportunity and experience.
But as it may be evident, I’ve a lot to learn before I can comfortably call myself an expert. That’s why I’m on the other coast, three hours ahead, being steamed to death. I’ve joined a program run by the Alden March Bioethics Institute; I’ll be earning a master of science in bioethics from the Graduate College of Union University and Albany Medical Center, as well as a PhD in Philosophy from the State University of New York.
Hopefully, I’ll be following in the footsteps of those who’ve inspired me, the people you should seek out if you want to be so inspired: Phillip Thurtle, Denise Dudzinski, Sara Goering, Brian Reed, John Toews, Jess Olsen and all the great folks in CHID and MHE. Thanks … I’ll miss you all.
I don’t have the answer for the scenario I posed at the beginning of this article, but maybe I’ll come back in a few years and let you know what I’ve found out.