The story is of Kimberly McNeill of New Zealand (as reported in the New Zealand Herald). She had been in a car crash before Christmas of 2010. Two months ago, doctors at Auckland City Hospital told her parents that she would never recover, and then against their wishes, the doctors turned off her life support. She did not die. Last Wednesday, she was well enough to return home, and is reported to be “singing, talking and slowly regaining her independence.”
Her parents were said to be sure that “with the right combination of treatment, love and support she would make a full recovery.” They’ve been correct so far. Highly paid doctors, who exercise the power of life and death based on their presumed superiority over ordinary people, were wrong.
Although especially well-defined and dramatic, the story is not that unusual. Doctors are wrong everyday, in hospitals all over the world. People expected to recover instead die. And people expected to die instead recover and return to something like their normal lives. In the former case, there’s always an explanation after the fact for why your relative didn’t make it after all. In the latter case, if there’s no clear explanation, the doctor will tell you to just consider it a question of very good luck — and in the joy of recovery, people are happy to do so, or to give all thanks to God.
All of this is normal, and indeed, those in the medical profession can certainly also be assumed to be well-meaning. They feel bad when things don’t go right. And they’re glad when patients recover against the odds. They work near-miracles of their own on a regular basis by means of their training, talent, and the power of modern medical science and technology.
The thing which is out of place, in my way of looking at these things, is that no matter how many times doctors may get the big questions wrong — and as said, it happens daily in hospitals everywhere — most still retain complete confidence in the likelihood of their being correct in the future, and most people accept the reliability of their life and death assertions. And so do courts, when the question of the medical termination of someone’s life comes before a judge. It is as if no one has countenanced the fact that the doctor might have incomplete knowledge, or that the relatives’ assessment of their loved one might actually be worth something, as in the case above.
And this is far from academic. It has a bearing on innumerable people facing life and death situations right now, trying to make the right decision for a loved one. It has a direct bearing on the case of Joseph Maraachli, the baby in a hospital in London, Ontario. Doctors there have decided that the baby’s breathing tube should be removed, and he should be offered only “palliative” care until he dies. His father is begging that a tracheotomy be performed so that he can take Joseph home and have some chance of caring for him there, giving him a shot at recovery or at least a longer life. A court has ruled that the doctors’ position must stand. The battle continues, with an ongoing effort to have Joseph transferred to a hospital in the United States that might be willing to do something other than just let the baby die.
His father, Moe Maraachli, is quoted by the Toronto Sun today:
Maraachli said after the speeches that he doesn’t trust the doctors anymore and believes they are misleading other hospitals who might take Joseph on. He said they won’t let him have Joseph’s medical records and can’t understand why there is extra security at the hospital.
“I think they mislead too much. No comment for the reason. I don’t know why,” he said.
“Joseph, he doing well. He’s not (getting) worse. He’s good,” he said.
“I give him his bath. He’s stretching. He knows me when I come talk to him. His head is moving to me.”
The father said he believes his son can breathe on his own and “just has trouble with secretions.”
“They put him on machine. They said the machine keep him alive. They’re wrong. They play God on Earth,” he said.
He said his hope remains that they can take him home and, “when the brain tell him to stop breathing, no more breathing, he die by God’s hand. That’s all I ask.”
Why is the testimony of Joseph’s father as to his baby’s condition considered so totally without weight? Why are doctors presumed, even by courts, to be correct in every instance, when common experience shows that — however well-meaning — they are wrong on a regular basis? Why, even when a life is at stake, and parents are merely asking for a fighting chance at caring for their son at home, is no room for doubt allowed?
Wesley Smith, who has written brilliantly for a long time on these issues, believes that the request for the tracheotomy clouds what might otherwise be a stronger case for maintaining life support. He may well be correct. But the basic question remains of why family members’ testimony as to the condition of the patient — the level of awareness, in this case — is automatically considered worthless by a court. On such an issue, I simply do not accept that doctors have all the answers, and I suggest that the evidence of common experience backs this up — be it the experience of of Kimberly McNeill in New Zealand, or countless others who never make the newspapers.