Thursday, April 2, 2020

Places, Everyone

Coronavirus: The young doctors being asked to play god. How's that for a grabby headline? The story is mostly a tale of the stress that attempting to deal with the influx of very ill patients is having on one young doctor. It's not until the very end of the piece that the "playing god" part of the story comes into play.

She described a patient being brought in from an old people's home. He was already on a ventilator - and was "chronically vent dependent". His prospects were never great. But all she could see before her was the ventilator - and not the patient.

"When he came in we were so desperate for vents," she told me, "all I wanted to do was get the ventilator off him. I wanted to get that vent off him to allow it to go to someone else."

Playing god is not what this young woman thought she would be doing at this stage in her career.
Interestingly, the emergency medicine resident in question never uses the phrase "playing god," herself. She, instead, describes it in less grandiose terms: "The issue is giving up on people we wouldn't normally give up on." And in this sense, there's nothing about this that says that medical professionals are taking on the role of gods, or God, as the case may be. If there is a divinity in charge of these situations, they have already decided that without the heroic measures of humans, and the technology that their disposal, these people would die. Seeing the ventilator on a person with a poor prognosis as a needed resource is not the same as usurping the role of the divine.

It is not in the nature of humans to leave questions of life and death up to whatever forces one understands control the universe. In that sense, humans, as a species, have been "playing god" since the beginning of recorded history. But the charge, and it often is an accusation, comes out when the choices to be made are difficult. Staking steps to prolong a life, even if the chances of failure are great, does not intrude on the mandates of the heavens. Only having to make difficult decisions carries that stigma. Perhaps it is time to change that. Giving up on people because others have what is understood to be a greater need should not be labelled as "playing god," if for no other reason than it is far from "playing." (In any sense of the word.)

Deciding that no-one should ever die because the resources needed to prolong their life were unavailable is easy. Making sure that those resources are there, however, is not. And if that responsibility has not been taken, accusing those who now have difficult choices to make of overstepping their stations won't fix that.

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