Recognizing Patient from Person
During today’s class discussion, a logical question was posed regarding why George Gey simply did not ask Henrietta permission for use of her tissue sample. After all, Henrietta was a human being, and thus deserved to be treated with some form of simple human courtesy. In fact, throughout the entirety of the novel, Skloot presents a number of healthcare professionals and other scientists as more or less inconsiderate of or unconcerned with the human source of the HeLa phenomenon. Taking into consideration the extensive evolution of patient confidentiality and medical ethics over the course of the last half-century, it seems simple enough to assume that a modern day Henrietta Lacks would be treated with greater courtesy and amicability by her doctors. However, having worked in and around hospitals for the greater part of four years, I can testify to the detachment that still pervades much of the medical industry.
First and foremost, the public conception of the doctor’s role in the hospital environment is typically skewed. Television and film oftentimes depict doctors and other hospital employees as emotionally invested in the recovery of the sick and injured. This is only partially valid. Generally speaking, doctors are interested in the wellbeing of patients, not people. They focus their efforts not upon names, faces, or personalities, but instead dedicate their time to understanding the set of symptoms, vital signs, and medications inscribed across each patient care chart. A number of doctors admittedly refrain from speaking to their patients on a regular basis. They operate behind closed doors, delegating face-to-face interaction to nurses and technicians. When a patient dies or is successfully treated, his or her chart is closed and a new one is opened.
Needless to say, when I was first tossed into the sterile confines of the emergency room as a volunteer at age 16, I was troubled by such apparent callousness. When reporting medical findings to my superiors, I was instructed to refer to individuals not by their name, but instead by their room number. Similarly, I was not to engage in conversations with patients regarding family, friends, or life experiences. Again and again, I was advised that unnecessary friendliness would only distract from my duties as a healthcare provider. By the time I was promoted to a paid emergency room technician during my senior year in high school, I had a far better understanding of the need for insensitivity. In an environment that sees death on such a regular basis, attachment to patients is not only distracting, but also dangerous. When emotions threaten to affect one’s quality of care, they are better avoided altogether.
Upon reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot’s audience is naturally distressed to learn of how society took every advantage of the HeLa cell line, all the while forgetting the name and story of Henrietta herself. While it is tempting to place blame on those who specifically treated and later studied the cells of Henrietta, her story serves to illustrate a far more universal truth regarding the medical landscape. It is always less trouble to remember the patient than the person.