Physicians suspend judgment of those in need of their care.
I learned something working on this issue of Medicine@Brown. When someone says to you, “You’re brave,” you will immediately stop and reconsider what you’re doing.
Such was the case when Sean Love told me I was brave for publishing his chronicle of medically evaluating Julian Assange. Assange is a complicated figure, one accused of serious, damaging crimes, including sexual assault. Not exactly the makings of a puff piece. But Assange is also a human being, and if you believe that every human being has a fundamental right to health care, as I and most of the physicians I know do, then even Julian Assange should receive medical attention. Love’s international mission to assert that right is a compelling and thought-provoking tale.
I’ve thought about the moral crises doctors must grapple with when required to provide care to a person who has done things they find reprehensible. After the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, emergency medicine physicians and trauma surgeons provided world-class care, no treatment spared, to the two bombers in hospital bays where days before they had treated the victims of the terrorists’ bombs. In an interview with The Marshall Project, Stephen Odom, a trauma surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, unequivocally shut down the question of whether a bad person like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev “deserved” the lifesaving care he received. “Even people who are incarcerated for terrible stuff still get care. It’s just what we do,” Odom said.
It’s no surprise it was a Brown-trained doctor who raised the issue of Assange’s access to care and fought for a medical team to evaluate him. There’s a long tradition at the Warren Alpert Medical School of advocating for those with the least agency—from the ongoing work with the state Department of Corrections to the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights to the asylum clinic that Love founded and which continues today.
No one asks if the patient before them deserves care. By virtue of being human, they have the right.