CALIFORNIA March 7, 2013 — When the news story first broke about a nurse refusing to provide life-saving CPR to an elderly woman, I was appalled. How could a person trained to save lives stand by and, after dialing 911, watch a woman die without lifting a finger to help?
87-year-old Lorraine Bayless resided in an independent living community (ILC) in Bakersfield California. She collapsed after a meal and was barely breathing. Unfortunately for Lorraine, a self-identified nurse refused to apply CPR since the ILC policy was to only call 911, not render any other medical assistance, and then wait for medical care to arrive. To make things even worse, the 911 dispatcher pleaded with the nurse to apply CPR, but the nurse refused, citing policy restrictions. When the dispatcher begged her to find someone else who would help, none was sought out.
The real irony in this sad story is that if Lorraine had family visiting her at the time, the 911 dispatcher could have coached them to apply CPR. If Lorraine had enough strength to crawl out of the facility, of if she had been walking around outside when she collapsed, passersby would have undoubtedly come to her rescue. In other words, the most dangerous place she could have been was in the ILC facility itself.
Since the initial news report, more has come to light about the facility policies, their interpretation, who first called 911, and whether the self-identified nurse was still a practicing nurse. But whatever the details, the morality of what happened still resonates as horribly wrong.
Either the nurse was incapable of helping for some yet unknown reason, or fear of employment consequences prevented her from acting. The result, however, was the same; an elderly woman died. Like it or not, stories like this are an opportunity for some soul-searching.
The fact that so many people were appalled by the initial news account is encouraging. It says loud and clear that we’re still a compassionate society in times of life-threatening need. This mercy legacy is deeply rooted in our Christian view of the sanctity and value of life (Genesis 1:27), and a desire to preserve it. In fact, our Good Samaritan laws directly reflect the essence of Jesus’ teaching about giving care and comfort to those in emergency situations (Luke 10:25-37). These laws don’t demand we help others; but they protect us when we do render help in a crisis.
The sad side of this story, besides Lorraine’s death, is that someone with the necessary medical skills to preserve life actually refused to do it. This reflects the warning about inaction we find in James 4:17.
The nursing profession has been a noble calling since its inception, with its foundation principle to preserve life and render comfort. This Bakersfield incident may be an anomaly, but it’s a wakeup call if strict, risk adverse policy can trump the right thing to do morally and professionally.
Are we such a litigious society that we prefer to hide behind a written policy rather than pursue our natural human response to help a dying person? Have our laws become so obscure that common sense is trumped by the threat of attorneys taking advantage of any circumstance for their personal gain? Are employees now scared to render common sense help at a critical time because of a potential threat to their job?
Or worse yet, is this just a prelude to the enormous changes expected in our medical services industry as Obamacare takes deep root and tries everything in its power to save money by deciding which lives are worthy of care?
Because a politician’s signature knee-jerk reaction is to create more laws, I detest suggesting legislation to “correct” rare situations like the one at Glenwood Garden. So, what should be done?
If a facility is risk averse because of the possibility of a lawsuit, shame on our collective society for so often trying to gain unworthy benefit from unfortunate circumstances. If it’s because the facility management was inept, then they need to be exposed for their incompetence to protect others in the future. If existing law prevents facilities from rendering appropriate care, then reason would say something is wrong and those laws need to be reformed.
This type of incident may never happen again, or its rarity may only be in making the evening news. Time will tell.
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