Author Archives: Iris Wickham

Sympathizing with Super-Spreaders?

I’ve never thought to sympathize with those who have been super-spreaders of the coronavirus. However, The Public-Shaming Pandemic highlights the detrimental effects that passerby and social media users can create when they attack and target those who have been infected. I believe, like most bioethical issues, there is a fine balance to be struck. The coronavirus is a mystery. Many didn’t understand how contagious it was and how to contain themselves, especially as early as February. They didn’t want the virus, and most who were infected didn’t know that they had it. But there’s a fundamental societal problem if celebrities and wealthy people are spreading the virus because they can pay the costs and utilize their status and wealth to recover. This, in itself, is a perfect reflection of the capitalist system. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that the 1% is exacerbating the virus for the 99%. Rather there lies a primary issue of privilege, and in many cases, ignorance. Most cannot afford to fly to a luxurious spot in Europe where they would get infected, and then stay in a deluxe hospital, and receive unlimited time off work to recover. Many people couldn’t even get tests, so why should Nga Nguyen have special priority? 

It isn’t her fault that she was born into a system that would continually favor her. It is the social and political system behind it. Privilege flows into every facet of their lives, while the opposite exists for the less privileged. I don’t blame those who have lost relatives, gotten laid off from work, and struggle to feed their families for using social media as an outlet to release their anger at the inequalities that are being brought to light. Social media has always been a frenzy. It was made so that there doesn’t need to be any identity behind offensive messages. 

I saw this “public-shaming” transpire just recently, when supermodel Kendall Jenner had a giant birthday party. She, of course, received backlash. I understand why, but I believe this anger should not be directed at her character, but rather her ability to ignore health precautions and put others at risk. This is obviously a problem. Therefore, as Max notes, “digital shaming can succeed when other forms of political action fail.” In this way, social media gives people a sense of accountability that can actually make legal change.

So, who is at fault? Is it Nga and Kendall or the global wealth gap and capitalist America?

America’s Defeat: Covid-19 Analysis

Ed Yong is admirably frank in this Atlantic article, asserting that Covid-19 in the U.S. was an utter failure. Yong defends this argument with abundant statistics, stark comparisons to other nations, and historical parallels which make his case hard to contest. In practically every action taken (and lack thereof), the United States went wrong, and the consequences are extensive. Is the blame really on President Trump? Or is it on his supporters and other Americans who neglect the importance of public health? Both, it seems, went hand in hand.

I appreciate Yong’s claim that the “normal” life we were so used to is what actually led to this pandemic. In many ways, this global crisis is a wake-up call to fundamentally change lifestyle norms which are unnatural, especially in the United States. The elemental American belief that health is a matter of personal responsibility rather than a collective good was the first strike that led to our downfall. The capitalistic system contradicts many ethical pillars of allocation of healthcare in itself. In a pandemic, this exacerbates. Yong notes, “Black people have higher rates of chronic illnesses that predispose them to fatal cases of COVID‑19. When they go to hospitals, they’re less likely to be treated. The care they do receive tends to be poorer.” It’s hard not to think of Henrietta Lacks and the countless other people of color who have been mistreated from this affair. The selfish every-man-for-themself notion inevitably hurts certain groups who come from a nation built on specific oppression. Yong also flips the value of capitalism on its head. America may be the richest country in the world, “but dollar bills alone are no match against a virus.” In summation, our country has been deservedly humbled.

Americans are used to waking up to notifications with statistics on their phone. News headlines such as, “America tops 200,000 new cases” is now nothing unusual to us, but it’s important to think about the lives behind the numbers and the consequences of this normalization. In many ways, social media inflamed this pandemic, and it does not seem to be declining whatsoever in the near future. With evidence that media is impactful, it adds another layer of accountability for our leaders to handle their platforms maturely. If, say Hillary Clinton, had won the 2016 election and served as our president during this time, how different would the outcome have been? We can only wonder…

Third and Final Part of the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Both the ending of the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and the actual act of finishing this novel was bittersweet. The third section, “Immortality,” importantly demonstrates Deborah Lacks’s personality, personal suffering, and resolute love towards her mother and sister. I appreciate this third part most, because readers are finally able to deeply understand the perspective of the Lacks family, rather than just snippets from accounts with doctors, scientists, or others who harassed the family. Rather than judge troubled characters, such as Zakariyya, the events in Part 3 foster a sense of empathy. I was emotionally stricken by the effects of trauma that the family has faced from HeLa, particularly Deborah, and how it motivates her to learn more about Henrietta and Elsie.

I immediately think about current social issues in cases of Deborah’s direct and indirect distrust towards white authority. It’s heartbreaking, and comes off almost childlike when Deborah repeats herself and changes her mind constantly about Rebecca. Once the reader is able to understand where these intrinsic fears come from, in this case “Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield,” it’s clear to the reader that this is just a human response to all she has been through; she isn’t inherently flawed. This serves white readers an important reminder of the trust we have in institutions/authority that many do not. Modern society hasn’t escaped the injustices that were apparent decades ago.

Many actions display Deborah’s strong character: her will and determination to go to school as an older woman, her focus on honoring her mother and sister rather than simply working for financial gain, and her obvious broken physical health that she pushes aside to continue finding information. Another passage from the novel that I found very interesting was Gary and Deborah’s interaction, and the way faith played into the rest of the book. As someone who is nonreligious but respects religious people, I was fascinated by the immensely powerful effect faith had on Deborah’s mental state, and sense of comfort it gave her. I wonder, would Deborah have survived her many strokes/health issues had faith not been a part of her life?

Rebecca Skloot may have instigated some of the mental stress that Deborah faced, but overall their bond was beautiful. Skloot served as one of the first outside, stable listeners in Deborah’s life which was so desperately needed. If Skloot didn’t exist, how would Deborah’s life have been different? Although I deeply wish Deborah had received better care and compensation for her mother’s ordeal, I find peace in the fact she died happily around people who loved her.

Thoughts on Part 1 of the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

In comparison to past readings, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is especially compelling. The intersection of history, social justice, biology, and ethics makes this truth an indelible, consequential narrative that all within (and outside of) the medical field should hear. It evokes philosophical and moral dilemmas that highlight how Henrietta Lacks became a tragic victim of medical professionals. The poignant reminders of the cruel treatment of black people in America less than 80 years ago make this tale even more frustrating and important to read.

I was first struck by the overwhelming suffering of Henrietta and the grace and simplicity by which she lived her life. The daily life for lower class African-Americans in the 1920s was challenging. Her upbringing, living conditions, and responsibilities are drastically different from the seemingly luxurious ones in my life. She was a kind, vivacious, generous Virginian who handled her obstacles with the utmost humility and morality. Her conscious effort to hide her pain and serious complications during and after childbirth, coupled with America’s broken social dynamic, ultimately led to her downfall.

Healthcare for whites vs. blacks in the mid-twentieth century were two different things. Henrietta was deprived of informed consent and autonomy in almost all of her medical procedures and appointments, yet the Johns Hopkins Hospital was painted in a charitable light, making their services to Henrietta seem heroic. Although she technically possessed a certain degree of autonomy, it was as if any service the hospital provided was supposed to be met with obedience and agreement as reciprocity, thereby diminishing her intrinsic autonomy. Henrietta’s treatments for cervical cancer were physically damaging and in the end, ineffective. Arguably the most infamous action was the retrieval of her cells which was done entirely without consent. Henrietta Lacks was fully deprived of quality care.

While I have focused much on expository information, I am nervously awaiting the coming events and progression of her story, and what’s to come from the HeLa cells. So far, it is evident that her family was not given compensation or reparations for the toll that this tribulation had on them. At the very least, her story must be told to spread awareness and pose important questions for the modern medical field. And although Henrietta’s case seems wildly outdated, similar problems still exist today.

Unresolved Ambiguities within the Canterbury Court Decision

Defining a foolproof protocol for informed consent within medicine requires courts to quantify something that cannot be quantified. The amount of ambiguity within this court decision may have concerning consequences for patients. The court is overall reasonable in setting precedent for this complex issue. However, potential problems remain, both as a function of the inherently convoluted topic of informed consent and of certain gaps within the court’s ruling.

How much information physicians should disclose, when, and to whom, leaves room for debate. The court states the information needs to be “relevant” to the case and a reasonable person who would work on it must approve of this. The “relevance” of information is undeniably ambiguous, but perhaps this is impossible to cover with a single law, as the risks for craniectomies require more thorough explanation than those of wisdom teeth surgery, for example. The court provides an adequate incentive for physicians to notify patients of all potential, relevant risks: the patient can hold the physician liable in court for something that the physician did not warn them of and that had causal relationship from their procedure.

There remain many problems with the wide latitude of behavior legally protected by therapeutic privilege. It is hard to argue that this does not become a direct threat to patient autonomy. The lack of stipulations makes patients vulnerable to abuse, as the physician can take advantage of the patient with legal justification. Invoking this privilege during treatment for a patient with anxiety and depression who may experience distress is wrong, as they are still competent, autonomous beings. In extremely rare cases, such as delusional parasitosis, the use of therapeutic privilege may be appropriate. The court doesn’t specify the legal conditions when it is permissible to withhold information from the patient. The court seems to try to distinguish between non-disclosure and paternalism, but really what is the difference in practice? 

Another potential issue arises in the court’s assertion that physicians should not have to warn of inherent risks of surgery, such as infection, as people of “average sophistication” should already know such things. While in many cases this may be true, there is no algorithm for measuring someone with “average sophistication.” Infection is a serious complication and it is the patient’s right to be told.

There are bound to be points of contention in this court decision, as putting this principle into action ultimately becomes very legally intricate in the world of medicine.