Life as an Extreme Sport

Code Grey [August 08]

I feel like I knew that Bob’s prof’s were the folks comprising the Harvard Ad Hoc Committee on Death, but I blinked a few times when I heard it, anyhow. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that history is only as distant as our own memories; what is intangible history for me is Bob’s graduate days. It’s an odd sensation – and another reason why I think that Glenn is wrong when he says we have no lineage, rooted history. Perhaps he doesn’t, because he’s one of the people who’ll be the father-philosopher’s of the field, as is Bob, Art, and so forth. But for me, the, what – third generation? Fourth, perhaps? I have lineage, and it is found within these larger than life names that are suddenly grounded for me here, in Albany.

That said, and though I have several things I’d like to write about today, the first thing I want to bounce about, to glee about, is something that probably seems to silly, so prosaic. But I got my AMC ID today, and with it came an emergency code card (though I’ll note, as I told my friends, and as a Grey’s Anatomy joke, there’s no code black…). For some reason, for all my time in hospitals, and in all the roles I’ve had, I’ve always been jealous of that code card. It seemed like a mysterious world of knowing what was being said on the loudspeaker, some secret world to be initiated into. So, after getting my parking pass and walking back to Security to grab my bag, to be handed an ID that included a code card felt like I actually had crossed some line, from the side of sometimes volunteer or patient or student in a hospital so large that they never ventured out of the research wing and never needed an ID, to something more tangible, more real – an attitude I admit it is, when you think about it, silly. Yet, there it is, the reaction I had to a simple piece of paper. I suspect Sue would talk about tangible artifacts of cultural meanings…

In today’s lecture, Bob talked more on the Hippocratic Oath, moving to the question of full moral standing, and who has it. Rather naturally, I thought of Mary Ann Warren, and Sara (Goering)’s class on moral issues of life and death (framed around Peter Singer’s arguments, but an interesting way to be introduced to various positions). Anyhow, in talking about moral standing, Bob made the statement that defining death has a little to do with biology and a lot to do with morality. He then went on to explicate the moral positions of cardiac, whole brain, and higher brain death. But in introducing this rather, in my eyes, provocative turn on the subject – that death is a construct, and it’s a construct that exists so that we can both define life, and define moral agency, standing, ability and responsibility – Bob yanked our attention over to a very common phrase: oh, he was clinically dead, but we brought him back to life. Well, no, says Bob, he obviously wasn’t clinically dead, since the definition of such is an irreversible loss of function; if you were able to resuscitate someone, then they did not irreversibly lose function, and ergo are not dead . Thus, we should limit death to functional loss, where you cannot be brought back – there are too many issues with the vagueness around the language of death. I will admit, this is a charge I’ve heard a lot; at one point, knowing when someone was dead was easy, and now it is one of the hardest things to know.

Apparently Jersey is a really interesting place for ethics – Quinlan, of course, but on top of that the law recognizes that some religions look at death differently, and Jersey has no requirement that every person use the same definition as medical norm. There are some specific exceptions in line for people with religious beliefs, which seems rather enlightened. Perhaps we can hope other states will export such a view…

The idea of ventilating corpses, something that happens daily in hospitals all over the country, is creepy. There’s really no other word for it; it brings to mind the idea of a Robin Cook novel, and the ventilated corpses are really being used for some malicious reason; they’re being harvested for organs (Coma, by Robin Cook) or maybe used as batteries to run large cities (rather Matrix-y), or even as incubators for… well, babies of our own, or maybe alien babies or bacteria (reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica and the farms on Caprica). Legally and technically, there is a big difference between pronouncing death and ventilating a cadaver, and ventilating a person who is brain dead, including the very basic one of insurance, not to mention the language itself – labeling carries power. But I think that my brain will forever have the image of some pseudo-futuristic, science fiction/horror world with ventilated cadavers looming ominously in the background.

Sue showed us the end of her illustrative B-movie today. I’m very disappointed I didn’t catch the full cultural script; I was too enmeshed in my own timeline, and didn’t consider the quite most obvious option! After all, the idea was not the redemption of the family and potential for good, rather than inherent bad running in families, but redeeming the girl; obviously adoption is the clear way to redeem her while still condemning her “family”. Some of the quotes from the movie are great:

We can make an occasional mistake – the benefit is so great! (Really? Where do we sign people up for being made mistake on?)

This is for the good of the public at large! (Presuming your public is white, middle class America, mainly men…)

This segment was interesting, but mostly repeat for me. I had a full class where I focused on Cold Springs Harbor and their eugenics database, crawling through and reading and marveling at the attitude of people so recently ago and so different from my own world. And of course, people from that era are still alive and kickin’, even if they weren’t born ‘til decades later. So seeing the view is probably worthwhile. But anyhow! Eugenics fear, more than anything else, I think is what has pushed for the ELSI budget allocated by the Human Genome Project to begin with. Which comes back to the culture idea, and culture pushing/pulling our public policy.

I meant to look up the CNN report on the German doctor claiming he could vaccinate against stupidity, but we weren’t in an internet capable room at the time, and the whole exhaustion/falling over when I get home thing/no energy to find internet outside of school thing prevented me. Still, the idea of a vaccination against stupidity… do you suppose, should that actually be true (which I so strongly doubt, I won’t even bother to underline it, I’ll simply trust you’re with me on this one), that we would simply redefine what stupidity is? It’s a rather Harrison Bergeron-esque argument, only instead of keeping everyone at average, it demands that in order for there to be average, there must be exceptional and less than. Won’t we always create a less than exceptional?

It seems to me there must be some level of irony that the intent of the Eugenics Record Office was, in part, an attempt to work as a marriage record office, allowing people to make the most fortuitous marriages. After all, don’t we have databases today that are the same basic premise – allow people to verify that their progeny will be healthy?

Then again, I’m the person who saw the photo of immigrants at Ellis Island, under an American flag, and instantly thought of Nazi Germany rally pictures. I might not be the best mindframe to see neutrality and irony.