Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and the true cost of upholding the Hippocratic Oath

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It has been weeks since the Boston marathon bombings.  The hospitals in that city, by most accounts, were remarkably well prepared, expertly and compassionately caring for the injured innocents.  Emergency response was fluid and efficient.  As tragic as the events of April 15 were, the health care workers of Boston were beacons of inspiration for a city in shock.

Yet these heroics do not represent the most impressive actions performed by Boston care providers.  My vote for the most remarkable may surprise you.  They are the doctors and nurses who cared for the seriously injured suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

My views regarding Tsarnaev’s guilt are likely to be the same as yours, and I am fairly certain that the doctors who treated him have their views, too.  What I also trust is that, regardless of these views, these same doctors gave their full effort to save Tsarnaev’s life.

Those who are not involved in medical practice might not care too much about whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev received the best treatment.  However, the actions of the suspect’s health care team, assuming that they gave their best, are a shining example of the sacrifices made by those who heal, and the integrity that results.

What I am referring to is the true cost of upholding the Hippocratic Oath, a fundamental tenet of which is that physicians should treat the patient, and not his morality.  Throughout the practice of medicine, doctors may meet patients and families who they do not like, or who might not like them.  They may meet patients who are politically incorrect, or outright bigoted, or even criminals.  Yet, regardless of whether the patient is a kindly old woman, a hopeful young child, or an extremist killer, physicians understand this:  when we allow the moral status of our patients to dictate the extent and quality of care that we provide to them, the integrity of being a physician is compromised.

I am not pretending that adherence to the Oath is straightforward.  In fact, my opinion is quite the opposite.  More than intellect, more than dedication, more than the ability to withstand stress, it is adhering to the Oath that continues to pose the greatest challenge of being a physician.  Sacrifices that physicians make with regard to work hours are a pittance compared to the dedication required to be the best doctor possible for a monster.  Yet, without this adherence, we could easily find ourselves moving towards being judges, and away from being healers.

The care providers for the innocent victims of Boston were heroes.  However, given how conflicting it must have been to treat Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, his doctors and nurses are also deserving of our respect.

Ron Cheung is a hematologist-oncologist.

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