"My mother's doctor is refusing to give her antibiotics," the caller told me in an urgent voice.
I asked why.
"He says that she's ninety-two and an infection will kill her sooner or later, so it might as well be this infection."
As disturbing as this call was, as outrageous the doctor's behavior, I wasn't particularly surprised. I have been receiving such desperate calls with increasing frequency for the last several years. Not every day. Not every week. But with sufficient regularity to know that something very frightening is happening to American medical ethics.
Among the more disturbing of such calls I have received was from John Campbell, whose teenage son, Christopher, had been unconscious for three weeks because of brain damage sustained in an auto accident. The boy had just been released from the hospital intensive care unit when he developed a 105-degree fever in the hospital's "step‐ down unit." Campbell asked the nurses to cool his fever. They replied that first they needed a doctor's orders. Campbell asked them to obtain it, but Christopher's physician was out of town and the on-call doctor said no. "It was an evening of hell," Campbell says. "My son's life meant less than hospital protocol. When the doctor refused to order treatment, the nurses said that there was nothing they could do."