Home > Uncategorized > Recognizing Patient from Person

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.

  1. September 9, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    While reading Henrietta’s story I saw a pattern of laboratory workers, doctors and nurses all writing off her situation. They knew that she would become infertile but forgot to tell her and they knew she would die soon. But all they seemed to be focused on was the rate at which the cells outside her body would grow, not the cancer cells within her. I have also been spending the last few years volunteering at a hospital as well as being on the other side being a frequent patient and family member of a long term patient and while the public conception is skewed I had a different experience.
    I did find that doctors are to be too busy to care for patients and see them as a chart, however the nurses do not. The nurses and other volunteers will spend the time with patients, rather than just changing the medication and rushing out the door. The nurses who worked overnight shifts still spent time to learn the patient’s names and stories and many of the volunteers would eat with the patients. These staff members became attached to the patients, it would make it harder when they died, but just because they were sick didn’t mean they stopped being seen as a person. I expected the doctors not spend very much time with Henrietta but I did not expect everyone else at the hospital to ignore her as well.

  2. dj74
    September 10, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    I also volunteered at a hospital for about a year between my Junior and Senior years in high school and I very much noticed this disconcerting reality. I had regular contact with the doctors and the X-ray technicians, none of who could recall the patients’ name, but could instead remember their symptoms in extensive detail. I would regularly here doctors discussing symptoms and possible diseases to each other, but not once would they say the patients’ name; it was usually “the patient in bed ___”. But while they were discussing, I was the one meeting and greeting the patients and their families. I do find this impersonal profession to be a little morally incomplete, but at the same time I do agree with the fact that it is still a profession and emotions and personal connections have a tendency to get in the way.
    Doctors usually have more than one patient at a time and cannot be held with the responsibility of learning everyone’s name. In addition, we can all attest to a time when we have allowed emotions to cloud judgment, but this is not a luxury that doctors can have because patients’ live and even quality of lives are at stake. Henrietta Lacks’ doctors were initially focused on her symptoms rather than her as a person because to them it was just another case. It wasn’t until after the discovery of her cultured cancerous cells that even a few doctors became curious about the person.
    George Guy was actually one of the first people to consider Henrietta as a real person because he intentionally provided the newspapers and various other media sources with a pseudonym for her, to avoid having her family swarmed by cameras and journalists (Chap. 14) But at the same time I do agree that the volunteers and nurses should have had a closer connection to Henrietta the person, instead of Henrietta’s cells.

  3. September 11, 2011 at 4:08 am

    I think that there are several factors at work here. One, times were different when Henrietta was at Johns Hopkins Hospital. At the time, racism was still a major part of society! In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot points out that Jim Crow laws were still in effect and that the Plessy v. Ferguson decision was still valid. As a result, Henrietta, a black woman, was discriminated against. She had to enter a “colored ward” and be examined in a “Colored-only exam room.” (see page 15) (2010). As a result of these cultural norms, the doctors and other medical staff may not have given her, or the other patients the same level of conscious attention as they would have a white person. (I am in no way saying that the medical staff of Johns Hopkins Hospital was overtly discriminatory or racist, and I am not suggesting that the institution or it’s faculty, staff, or employee personnel was or is currently endorsing racism. I am merely making an observation about that time period in general.)

    The second point I would like to make is that, often times, doctors, especially those that work in hospitals’ ICUs and emergency rooms, find it is easier and healthier for them to process and recover from the horrors that they encounter if they refrain from developing a personal attachment or relationship with their patients. There is obviously some bedside manner that doctors must possess, but if you start seeing a patient as a person, it becomes harder to make an objective series of decisions for them. For example: when I visited cadaver lab in Saint Louis, MO, I found it hard to look at the cadaver initially because I realized that it was a dead human being – someone who had a family and a life before I was even born. But during the few hours that I was in the lab, I grew to see the cadaver as merely a cadaver and was able to separate the human aspect from the body, and as a result, I was able to look at, touch and interact with the cadaver just fine. So by separating the human aspect from a patient, it makes it easier for doctor to act on a professional level.

  4. September 11, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    I actually remember volunteering the the New York Hospital Queens last summer as a hospitality volunteer. I was given the responsibility of making sure the patients are comfortable by pouring them water, giving them books to read, bringing them what they need, etc.

    I heard one elderly woman screaming in pain, yet no one did anything. The doctors and nurses just walked passed her as if nothing was wrong. I asked a nurse, “should we do something?” The nurses responded “No, she’s always like that”.

    Many of the nurses also patronize the patients by talking to them in a very condescending tone, as if they patients were kindergardeners. I’m not sure if it’s like this in every hospital, but similar things have happened to Henrietta. So it’s safe to say that such practices are widespread, or even standard.

  5. September 11, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Thank you for the replies! It is a privilege to read the opinions of students with a similar passion for medical service. Imorella – I am pleased to hear that you have had more satisfactory experiences with nurses and volunteers. Every once in a while, you come across an individual genuinely concerned with the comfort of others. Although Skloot speaks only briefly to the behavior and intentions of hospital employees, it is unlikely that Henrietta herself had such an encounter at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. From a medical standpoint, Howard Jones and his colleagues cared for Mrs. Lacks in a proper and efficient manner. In terms of emotional support and communication, there certainly was something left to be desired.

    Without a doubt, dj74’s observations closely mirror my own with regard to the apparent disconnect between clinicians and patients. In many ways, the hospital is designed to operate as a well-oiled machine, with resources focused nearly exclusively upon the prompt treatment and discharge of those in need. After all, Henrietta visited Doctor Jones not because she was in need of a friend, but instead because she was concerned about her physical health. The birth of the HeLa cell line and the surrounding moral controversy embody an entirely separate sequence of events. Although also questionable in terms of communication (or lack there of) with the Lacks family, George Gey’s research and utilization of the HeLa phenomenon do not necessarily reflect upon Henrietta’s clinical treatment at Hopkins. Accordingly, while it is absolutely fair to criticize the healthcare industry for its discouragement of personal bonding, I remain proud that our nation’s doctors are so dedicated to the physical recovery of their patients.

  1. September 20, 2011 at 11:17 pm
  2. September 20, 2011 at 11:17 pm

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