Monday, April 28, 2008

People Magazine’s Spin on Our Current Dr. Death

You know you’ve reached celebrity status when you get a spread in People Magazine. You really have to work at getting page time if you’re not a behaviorally challenged starlet or in the midst of a celebrity divorce or marriage.

Enter Dr. Hootan Roozrokh. Remember him? He was the subject of my Doctor Power commentary on April 7th. The good doctor needed organs, but Ruben Navarro just wouldn’t die so that Roozkrokh could get them. So Roozrokh did his energetic best to help Ruben along by repeatedly pumping him full of morphine and Ativan.

It took eight hours before Ruben “frothing at the mouth and shivering” (as a witness nurse told police) finally succumbed.

Now, here’s the part that concerns me about the People piece.

First, the title: Did a Doctor Speed a Patient’s Death?

As if there’s a mystery here.

No mystery at all, in my opinion. Every report on this case unequivocally points to the fact that Dr. Roozrokh repeatedly pumped Ruben full of fatal doses of drugs after Ruben kept breathing without a ventilator. What other conclusion could there be than that Dr. Roozkroh was speeding death? He certainly wasn’t waiting for it to occur naturally, and he sure as heck wasn’t trying to prolong Ruben’s life.

Second, the red “grabber box” above the People headline reads “Organ Donation.” The piece spends a lot of time handwringing that what happened to Ruben might translate into fewer people wanting to donate their organs.

Well, duh.

Let’s see: You want to donate your organs at some point but you’re afraid that some overenthusiastic transplant harvester won’t have the patience to wait for you to actually be dead. Or Dr. Harvester might actually expend amazing amounts of energy just to “help you along.” Afraid sounds reasonable to me.

Anyone who still thinks organ donation is always such a great idea needs to read Wesley Smith’s Culture of Death. It’s enough to set the organ donation idea back a hundred years. Perhaps it should.

Predictably, People soft-pedaled the real issue here:

Ruben was killed by a medical doctor because he would be more use dead than alive. Ruben was killed because he couldn’t defend himself or his rights as a human being. Ruben was killed because his mother was pressured, repeatedly, to permit organ harvesting.

That’s where we are, folks.

Have a severe disability? Unable to assert your rights? Don’t worry, Doctor Power can help.

The medical harvesters await.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Forgotten German Holocaust Against People with Disabiities

It’s about time.

Reuters reported a little while ago that the town of Brandenburg, Germany, was to open a center commemorating the 9,000 or so people with disabilities murdered there just before and during the first few years of WWII.

When most of us think of the Holocaust, we recall ghastly black and white footage of emaciated corpses at Belsen, Birkenau, and Auschwitz and the anguished cry of “We must never forget.”

Rightly so.

But we have forgotten the dirty little secret of six other names: Brandenburg, Sonnerstein, Bernburg, Hadamar, Grafeneck, Hartheim.

You see, the Holocaust, as most people understand it, wouldn’t have taken the form it did had it not been for these locales.

I’ll bet you probably haven’t heard of these six places. Please remember them, always. They are the names of six institutions that housed a wide array of people with some form of disability – from those with severe and profound disabilities to those who had fairly minor medical conditions such as epilepsy. These places of social charity were hijacked by Nazi thugs and turned from havens of comfort and safety to death chambers.

The death program even had a name. Aktion T4, Hitler called it.

First major challenge: How to kill these people?

They tried a number of ways. Shooting patients in the back of the head (too messy). Tying a bunch of patients together and blowing them up with dynamite (way too messy). Poisoning (too slow). Starvation (way too slow).

What to do?

Why, gas, of course. No mess. Easier to disguise as something legitimate.

How about gassing disguised as showering? Sound familiar?

We’ll never know how many died, but we can account for about 70,000 deaths from recovered records. I’d bet there were many thousands more.

So now you know where the gas chambers of Dachau, Majdanek, and Buchenwald came from. Some of the unsavory characters that worked the chambers in the institutions graduated to more impressive death-making in the concentration camps.

In Aktion T4, disability was a death sentence. Later, in the concentration camps, it was being Jewish, or being gay, or being a gypsy.

Same tune, different words.

The whole story is here at Useless Eaters.

Check it out, it’ll help you remember those six not-concentration-camps-but-formerly-caring-institutional names.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Surviving with a Disability: Location, Location, Location

I was struck by the stark contrast of two international disability stories that emerged late last week.

London’s Daily Telegraph reported the story of Lali, born with craniofacial duplication:

An Indian baby born with two faces is doing well one month after her birth, doctors have said. Lali was born with two noses, two pairs of lips and two pairs of eyes - but only two ears. And while she may seem like an oddity to some, her proud parents think she is simply a God reincarnated…

Her parents. . . said their little girl was "a gift from God". Excited villagers claim she is the reincarnation of the Indian God Ganesha and celebrated her arrival with clapping, cheering and offerings of gifts and money.

The story continues:

Doctors who delivered the baby said she appeared to be in good health, and is leading a normal life with no breathing difficulties. They were initially uncertain whether the baby would have normal functions but say so far she is "doing well" and eating from both of her two mouths. She also opens and shuts all four eyes at the same time.

The second story, in its English version, appeared at LifeSiteNews:

Amalé is four years old. Like many other children, he went to school for the first time on Thursday, February 12th, in Brasilia. A Kamiurá Indian from Mato Grosso, Amalé attracted attention from the rest of the children because he was the only child who was without a uniform and a backpack. But Amalé stands out from the rest for a much more troubling reason. The little Indian is actually a survivor of his own history. 

After being born, November 21, 2003 at 7 am, he was buried alive by his mother, Kanui. She was carrying out a ritual prescribed by the cultural norms of the Kamaiurás, which require that children of unwed mothers be buried alive. To seal the fate of Amalé his grandparents walked on top of the mound.

The report continues:

Nobody heard even a cry from the child. Two hours after the ceremony, in a gesture of defiance against the whole tribe, his aunt Kamiru set out to disinter the baby. She recalls that his eyes and nose were bleeding profusely and that he first began to cry only eight hours later. The older Indians believe that Amalé only escaped death because that day the earth of the pit was mixed with numerous leaves and sticks, which could have created a small air bubble . . . 
The motives of infanticide vary from tribe to tribe, as do the methods used to kill the little ones. In addition to the children of single mothers, handicapped and mentally retarded children are also condemned to death. . . . The rituals of execution consist in burying alive, choking, or hanging the babies. Generally it is the mother herself who must execute the child, although there may be cases in which she can be helped by the father.

So there we have it. In India, disability is viewed as a blessing, in Brazil, a fatal curse. Both instances target the children through anthropological and cultural lenses.

I’ll leave cultural perceptions of disability until another time. What’s important here is to note that while any society has its views about disability, it’s only happenstance in many places that makes the difference between living with a disability and being killed because of it.

Where are we, culturally, in the US and the West in terms of how we view people with disabilities? I think we straddle an ever-widening chasm: on one hand, people with disabilities are more vocal, included, and supported than ever before. On the other hand, we are increasingly silencing those with disabilities who can’t speak or defend themselves through assisted suicide and euthanasia.

We may, as a society, not choose to worship someone with a disability as a god, but, as a society, are we very far from primitive Brazilian tribes who kill newborns because they have a disability?

In many ways, I think not. Some of our finest “bioethicists,” for example, think it’s just dandy to do away with newborns (and others) with disabilities because they are judged to have lesser worth than those without disabilities.

How will we decide the future? Thumbs up, or thumbs down?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Doctor Power

At a recent international conference, I happened to be seated next to one of the presenters shortly after his erudite talk. His talk presented a scholarly and highly nuanced analysis and decision framework based on his understanding of the relevant philosophical and ethical literatures around death and dying. What was most intriguing for me was the part of his framework identifying who should be making these end-of life decisions.

Let's just say that the word doctor appeared much more often than words like patient, family, next of kin, spouse, or parent.

I engaged this distinguished ethicist and philosopher about his clear conclusion that, in most of his presented stages of decision-making, the doctor held full sway. I raised the concern of “doctor power” in light of how euthanasia in the Netherlands (and many other places, I’m sure) is often recommended (and carried out) by doctors without the permission of the patient -- or anyone else, for that matter.

Let’s just say he squirmed a little, and insisted that something got lost in the translation (he delivered his presentation in Italian, I heard the translated English version).

I don’t think so.

Let me be clear: Many physicians are a blessing to their patients, as they should be. However, only the truly naïve will believe that there are no doctors for whom euthanasia is an accepted, justifiable, and ethical practice.

In this day and age where the medical profession pretty much sees the “do no harm” part of the Hippocratic Oath as a quaint throw-back to a bygone era, and where, increasingly, medical decisions are economic decisions above all else, is it unreasonable to suppose that doctors everywhere, including in the US, sometimes act on their conviction that euthanasia is permissible without anyone’s permission?

Well, no. 

Doctor Power is here to stay. Remember Dr. Hootan Roozrokh?

No? Well, here’s what the Los Angeles Times story reported a little more than a year ago:

SAN LUIS OBISPO -- No one in the courtroom Wednesday suggested that Ruben Navarro could have avoided death for long.

But whether the severely retarded, comatose 25-year-old was nudged into it by an  impatient transplant surgeon is at the core of a legal proceeding unprecedented in the  United States.

Dr. Hootan Roozrokh, 34, has been charged with three felonies in Navarro's 2006 death. His case is being watched intently by medical professionals and ethicists across the country who fear that a conviction will discourage prospective organ donors and their families. . . .

At issue was whether Roozrokh, a San Francisco specialist on leave from Kaiser Permanente, improperly administered massive doses of morphine and Ativan, an antianxiety drug, in order to speed Navarro's death.

Doctor Power. Pure and simple.

Roozroh decided. Ruben died.

Ruben had been pumped so full of morphine and Ativan that when he finally succumbed, his organs were useless for transplantation.

Want to read about Hospital Power? Check out Annie’s story. I’ll have more to say about Annie later.

Maybe it’s time to find out how really well you know your doctor.

Couldn’t hurt to check……….