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Service before self

Service before self

Idaho Freedom Foundation staff
April 9, 2020

By Dr. John M. Livingston | Medical policy adviser

I share several of Dr. Robert J. Burnett's MD FACS's concerns regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, but I disagree with the politicization of the debate and the tone of his comments directed toward Rep. Heather Scott. Burnett, who practices at Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene, probably knows that doctors should not be in the business of threatening coercive actions, in this case, withholding of medical care, against those with whom we disagree.

Like Dr. Burnett, I am a surgeon. Like him, I am concerned about Covid-19. But I strenuously object to Burnett's argument that his rights have been infringed upon by Rep. Scott because she holds the opinion that Gov. Brad Little’s stay-home order is unconstitutional. The good doctor might like to inform us of what right she has taken from him in sharing such an opinion? Does she not have a right to her point of view? Does being a health care provider give Burnett special rights or privileges?

Health care providers through the years have earned the respect of their patients because we live by the Hippocratic Oath, by which we each swear. Central to this respect is the requirement that physicians treat patients in a non-discriminatory fashion irrespective of social position, ability to pay, race or gender, and yes, politics.

The oath we medical professionals take is serious. So much so that I once disobeyed a direct order not to operate on a Russian sailor with a rare type of intestinal obstruction, making me the subject of a military investigation.   When the charges against me were dropped, I reminded my military superiors that I was a doctor first, and a naval officer second. My patient was my mission.  My superiors thankfully understood.

My generation of physicians had the opportunity to serve in Vietnam, Grenada, Desert Storm, and Desert Shield. As an internist, I got to treat people with Yellow Fever, Malaria, TB, Schistosomiasis, and Leishmaniosis. As a trauma surgeon, I took care of patients who were drug addicts, criminals, murderers. I watched my fellow surgeons and their OR teams put themselves in harm's way many times saving the lives of Hepatitis-C and HIV-Aides infected patients.

Also in the oath is a description of a covenant between young physicians and those that came before them, who through their unselfish attending to patients under many adverse and personally threatening circumstances have paved the way for those practicing the art and science of medicine today.

I am so proud of the young physicians, nurses, and technicians who are unselfishly putting themselves in harm's way to care of their patients. I know many of the young physicians who have been called up in our military to serve on the ships Comfort and Mercy. I have taken the liberty of sending Burnett’s commentary to them and, not surprisingly, they are appalled. Thank God. For a physician to opine and put themselves in the position of denying care to any patient because of an opinion or anything else is thankfully contrary to the oaths that they took. 

I say this all to remind Dr. Burnett that he is carrying on a great tradition. It is an opportunity to serve — one that may never come again. And if I may speak directly to Dr. Burnett, I would remind him: your patients will inspire you to be a better person. Whatever hate and prejudice you have in your heart for those who have a different opinion than you have, will melt away when you realize their lives are every bit as important as yours — and so are their opinions no matter how much they differ from yours. Because of this, I am absolutely confident that if Rep. Scott came under your care, you would treat her with the same compassion and diligence that you would treat any other person. I hope you let her know that. The promise you made to yourself or when you took the Hippocratic Oath at Cincinnati requires that.

In the Catholic Mass right before the consecration of the host, the words are recited out loud from John: "Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives."  Lately, I have taken to thinking about all the patients and health care providers whose lives are intertwined in this pandemic, and I specifically think of them during this "sign of peace". Disease does not discriminate nor does it subscribe to a particular brand of politics. Only the peace that God can give us will give us the perspective to know that this too shall pass, and maybe a great good can come from it.

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