Saturday, May 26, 2007

Prisoners of science!

Isn't willow-bark tea enough?

Modern medicine is unfortunately rather corporate and impersonal. A lot of this has to do with our nation's unwillingness to take health care seriously, leaving it as a patchwork quilt of profit-driven HMOs and haphazard public-sector programs. It's regrettable and not likely to be fixed any time soon.

There's another aspect, though, thrown into high relief by paranoid outcries like a letter in today's San Francisco Chronicle. When the newspaper ran a human-interest story about a poodle who spends time cheering up young patients at UCSF's Children's Hospital, one reader's reaction was to issue a denunciation. Apparently science and medicine are evil. Or cruel. Something like that.
Spare us cutesy stuff

Editor — I cannot get your May 19 story about Izzy the poodle at UCSF out of my mind.

Could The Chronicle editors please spare its readers this sort of cutesy, upbeat reporting, where a happy face is painted on a tragedy?

The idea that a dog “brings joy to patients” is negated by the reality of the heart-rending accompanying photos of suffering children held hostage to illness, science and the medical-pharmaceutical industry.

Jane Q. Kennedy
San Francisco
I have no reason to question Ms. Kennedy's sincerity, which rings out from her hand-wringing prose, but what would she prefer to see? Should the young cancer patients be sipping herbal tea instead while sniffing aromatherapy candles and listening to Enya? That would be the very picture of tranquility.

Of course, they'd die.

The sad truth is that many of these kids will die anyway. Leukemia killed two of my cousins, despite the best that modern medicine could do at the time. One of them went very quickly. The other gained an additional ten years of life before a recurrence took her away from us. Both had difficult times during treatment and chemotherapy. I wish they could have been spared that suffering. Ms. Kennedy appears to believe that the suffering of juvenile patients is a pointless tragedy, motivated perhaps by the cupidity of “science and the medical-pharmaceutical industry.” What a nasty world she lives in. I suppose the doctors are in on the money-making conspiracy. Perhaps they giggle in the break room at the naïveté of their trusting patients and wink at each other. How clever of Ms. Kennedy to call them out.

Without claiming that science is always perfect or that the pharmaceutical industry always chooses people over profit, I will say that people like Ms. Kennedy are part of the problem. Her letter is a simple-minded bleat of anguish that offers nothing to anyone. I hope it at least made her feel good.


PlatoisDerrida said...


I'm also a bit puzzled by ms. Kennedy's response. I agree that what these children and others like them endure is heart-rending, but I also notice that the dog appears to have brought at least a little happiness to the patients. And while I agree that some of the details the reporter includes are overly cute, ultimately, I fail to see the connection between this story and the children begin held hostage. If anything, I'm encouraged that the hospital takes steps to address patients emotional needs as well as to treat their physical problems.

Zeno said...

Dear PiD:

Ms. Kennedy's brevity (or the sharp pencil of the Chronicle's editor) makes it impossible for us to be sure, but I suspect that she could have waxed eloquent on her topic if given free rein. Missing from her screed is the pejorative "Big Pharma", which is supposed to remind us that all pharmaceutical companies are a single organic unit, rapacious and predatory. Since it's easy to point at examples (such as Vioxx) where eagerness for sales overrode concerns about safety, we can then jump to the single-minded conclusion that Big Pharma is simply evil incarnate and that all of its drugs are useless, or worse. (These days it helps that the Bush administration prefers to use the FDA to control contraceptive drugs rather than risk corporate profits by being too picky about the safety of therapeutic drugs.) Then we can move on to the complaints from those who espouse "natural healing" (often leading to natural death) in the case of cancer. They criticize the barbarism of modern medicine because doctors (I mean real doctors, not "naturopaths" or other quacks) choose surgery (cutting!), chemotherapy (poisoning!), or radiation treatment (burning!). Now tell the truth: Do you want to be cut, poisoned, or burned? Of course not! But would you rather die? People like Ms. Kennedy imply or state that there are "alternative therapies", which physicians refuse to recognize. In addition to being a libel on medical doctors in general (and oncologists in particular), this claim demonstrates a profound disconnection from reality. Let's all think pretty thoughts!

Yeah, that'll work.

Rhoadan said...

It might be instructive to consider what treatments MD's and their families choose when confronted with something like cancer. My sister died of an adrenal carcinoma. Our parents are/were both MD's; our father did cancer research when we were kids. At no point did any of us even think about alternative therapies, except possible changes in diet as an adjunct to conventional treatment. I would add that the dietary changes were more in the line of "can't hurt, might help," than any belief that they constituted a cure. And my sister didn't quit chemo to pursue "alternative therapies."