Friday, October 28, 2011

Saluting my fellow doctors, and exhorting them as well

A few months ago, I wrote about the plight of doctors and nurses throughout the Middle East, who were being prevented from treating protesters who had been injured while demonstrating against unjust governments. In Bahrain, 13 doctors and nurses were convicted by a military court of crimes against the government for working to save the lives of civilians wounded by security forces – under massive international pressure, that conviction has been overturned, and they are being given a new trial in civilian court. I’ll state again, as I did then, that the duties of doctors, nurses and other health professionals are beyond question. The obligation to alleviate suffering and save lives is one that dates back far beyond the writing of the Hippocratic Oath, and one that transcends national and political boundaries. The red cross and red crescent are inviolable symbols respected the world over, and the sanctity of health professionals’ duties is recognized even in wartime.

I bring this up now because I have been moved with greatest respect to salute the men and women working to save the life and health of Scott Olsen, the Iraq war veteran who was critically injured after being hit in the head by a projectile fired by the Oakland Police Department as they attempted to clear protesters from Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland. It is shocking that a young man who served two tours in Iraq should have been wounded so severely in his own country by the police force employed to protect and serve American citizens. This is especially shocking because many Army and Navy veterans in the Occupy Wall Street movement have pushed so strongly for a cooperative approach to dealing with law enforcement agencies, one that emphasizes common desires and nonviolence. Most shocking, however, is video evidence that shows a flash-bang grenade being thrown at civilians going to Scott Olsen’s aid as he lay bleeding on the ground.

So again I want to say thank you to the team of medical professionals working to save Scott Olsen. Most recent reports indicate that he is in fair condition and that he has probably suffered a brain injury affecting the portions of his brain responsible for speech. Why this young man suffered this cruel fate is beyond reason. A man working in peace for the betterment of his country deserves better.

Health professionals occupy a central role in promoting social justice. Around the same time I wrote about physicians in the Middle East, I wrote also about how the quest for social justice was a quest for health. Likewise, physicians must advocate for justice to better the health of the people they are sworn to serve. Just as we alleviate suffering from bacteria, viruses and other ailments, so too must we work to alleviate suffering from poverty, unemployment, injustice, and other social ills. These too affect the health of our patients, not only through the long arc of biochemistry I suggested earlier, but also by limiting our patients from attaining their true potential, from realizing their greatest abilities, and from contributing to the world around us. Justice is what health looks like on the grander scale of society.