Moral Numbness

When you read this story in the New York Daily News, it’ll be even money as to whether you succumb to sadness or anger first:

Lorraine Bayless, 87, needed medical attention after her breathing slowed down at the Bakersfield, Calif., retirement facility where she resided. She later died after a nurse there refused to perform CPR on her citing company policy.

A dispatcher’s desperate pleas … [were] met with stubborn resistance, a shocking 911 tape reveals.

“It’s a human being,” the dispatcher says in the dramatic call. “Is there anybody that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?”

“Not at this time,” the nurse calmly replies.

… “We need to get CPR started,” [the dispatcher] says in the 7-minute call, which was made public Sunday.

“Yeah, we can’t do CPR,” says the nurse, identified as Colleen, referring to a company policy that requires employees to wait for emergency responders to arrive before attempting the procedure.

 … “Anybody there can do CPR,” the dispatcher continues. “Give them the phone, please. I understand if your facility is not willing to do that. Give the phone to that passerby, that stranger … this woman is not breathing enough. She’s going to die if we don’t get this started. Do you understand?”

“ I understand. I am a nurse,” Colleen says. “But I cannot have our other senior citizens who don’t know CPR do it.”

“I will instruct them. Is there anyone there who will (do it),” [the dispatcher] says, later adding, “I don’t understand why you’re not willing to help this patient.”

The nurse tells a colleague that she feels “stressed” over the situation and that the dispatcher is “yelling” at her to have one of the other nursing home residents perform CPR.

The temptation for pundits is always to take cases like this and extrapolate out to a broader social trend. I’d like to think that impulse incorrect in this case. I still retain enough faith (hopefully not misplaced) in the basic decency of most Americans to believe that the instinct to say “to hell with the regulations” would win out for the vast majority of people in a case where the stakes were literally life and death (in fact, that tendency to come through in the clutch has always struck me as one of the most laudable facets of the American character).

There’s still something fundamentally chilling about this, however, partially because we all know someone like this nurse: the bloodless bureaucrat whose soul has been replaced by a set of rules and regulations. For this woman, the most salient point about a senior citizen — whose care she is charged with — dying in front of her is that it stresses her out.

It angers me that we only know this woman’s first name. We ought to know the whole thing — and it ought to become shorthand in the same way as, say, Benedict Arnold. When we see someone shirking the most basic of moral duties on legalistic grounds, comparing them to “Colleen” should be the ultimate insult. She ought to be shamed — publicly, protractedly, and nationally.

People whose jobs entail responsibility for other lives — be they teachers, police officers, doctors, or those who care for the elderly — deserve our utmost respect when they do the job well. In cases like this, however — where their negligence becomes virtually indistinguishable from outright malice — there is no level of contempt too excessive.