If we accept the principle that universal human rights are worth embracing, then all human life must be included within this ideal. That's what "universal" means. Human rights begin when human life begins and ends with life's natural conclusion. Anything else is either ignorance or sophistry and bigotry." -- Mark Davis Pickup
Friday, January 23, 2009
Disability and Health care
Last month in London, England, a disabled man phoned for an ambulance because he was having a heart attack. Barry Baker, 59, then collapsed and lost consciousness.
The telephone fell to the floor too but the line remained open and the operator was still listening when paramedics arrived. They talked about whether Baker was worth saving and came to the conclusion he didn’t make the grade.
CONDEMNED TO DEATH
They did not resuscitate Baker and decided to tell their supervisors he was dead when they arrived. The operator listening on the telephone was horrified at what she heard and reported the incident to police. Emergency calls in London are recorded so the conversation of the paramedics was on tape. Police brought criminal charges against the paramedics.
Last August, a Scottish paramedic allegedly ignored the calls of a disabled woman who was having a suspected heart attack. Apparently he was on his tea break and a tasty sandwich took priority over the woman’s call for help. The woman died, the sandwich digested and the paramedic went on to “serve” the public the next day.
These cases are disturbing.
Please understand that I am not attacking paramedics. I have the highest regard for their profession. The vast majority of paramedics are wonderful, so excellent at serving people in medical need that when a bad apple shows up, the public is deeply offended that the trust they have for paramedics has been tarnished.
My point in highlighting these cases in England and Scotland is to illustrate an anti-disability bias amongst health care professionals.
In my case, the culprit was not ambulance attendants or paramedics; it was an attending physician at a hospital.
One night a few years ago, I experienced a bizarre attack with my
multiple sclerosis that mimicked a stroke. This frightening episode occurred suddenly then ended a few hours later almost as quickly as it came. But those few hours were terrifying.
At the height of the attack, I appeared to be unconscious, but was fully aware of my surroundings. It was a strange experience. If nursing staff at the hospital asked me a question I could respond, but only with one or two word answers.
When the emergency physician came in the room he looked at the chart then threw it on the counter and barked, “This is MS! I can’t do anything for this man.”
He muttered a few more disparaging comments and finally the nurse warned him I could hear what was being said.
The doctor whispered a few things to the nurse (inaudible to me) then ordered some medication and tests, and left.
I wonder what else he would have said if the nurse had not spilled the beans?
Would things have been different with attitudes of health care professionals if I or the other disabled patients I mentioned were able-bodied? I don’t know, but I do know that prejudice against people with disabilities is real. It extends throughout various aspects of society but is most glaring in medicine. When it comes to medical care, anti-disability prejudice can be deadly.
TRUST IS BROKEN
Word gets around and disabled people talk. We can become suspicious about whether we will be denied treatment or health care equal to that given to the rest of the population, if we are in a medical crisis.
What if we cannot speak up for ourselves at a critical moment of medical decision-making, and our loved ones are absent to advocate for our lives? Will anti-disability prejudice that is increasingly prevalent in health care delivery and bioethical circles, result in us being denied treatment or care?
It’s scary to be disabled in an era of post-Hippocratic medicine. A
utilitarian model has supplanted the sanctity of human life ethic. Futile care theories or cost-benefit decisions can prevail in critical or long-term care situations.
Because of this new reality, I’ve become suspicious of secular hospitals. If I must be hospitalized, I want it to be in a Catholic hospital or nursing home where care is governed by Christian moral consensus that is in keeping with Catholic teaching.
Catholic teaching condemns euthanasia as morally unacceptable
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2277). The criteria for withdrawal of treatment and pain relief are clearly defined (nos. 2278–2279).
The natural human dignity and respect of the sick, handicapped or the disabled is not only promoted but required in Catholic institutions.
In such matters, I have noticed an unmistakable difference between Catholic and secular hospitals. Are there ever occasions when Catholic hospitals have not behaved in a Catholic manner? Yes, but I trust they are rare.
As a general rule there is a Christian ethos or ethic that permeates Catholic hospitals and institutions. It is reflected in medical treatment and care that brings honour not shame to the Church and the name of Jesus Christ.
People with serious disabilities are safer in Catholic hospitals. Never let that change.
(This article also appeared in Canada's Western Catholic Reporter newspaper for the week of 26 January 2009, under the title "Medical Staff Pronounced Death Sentences on the Disabled" (http://www.wcr.ab.ca/columns/markpickup/2009/markpickup012609.shtml))