In TV’s medical drama “Code Black‘s” episode “Diagnosis of Exclusion,” we were plunged, as is too often the case in such shows, into a freak situation that might not occur in any U.S. hospital for a century, but that somehow happens on TV routinely.
A lunatic stalker named Gordon (Jesse Bradford) tried to rape doctor Malaya Pineda (Melanie Chandra) in the hospital garage, after stabbing a hospital administrator, perhaps fatally. Dr. Pineda fought back, the stalker stabbed her in the stomach, and then mild-mannered Dr. Angus Leighton (Harry Ford) arrived in time to pull the stalker off of his wounded friend and save her life. In the struggle that ensued, crazy Gordon was stabbed in the neck with his own knife.
This was presented in flashback, in the form of an official inquiry where Dr. Leighton explained that he told the stalker not to pull out his knife, but he did anyway, causing uncontrollable bleeding. “Maybe I could have done more but, I was out of my mind,” Angus explains. Leighton says he tried to stop the bleeding as he screamed for help. By the time the paramedics got the murderous patient into the ER, he was beyond saving.
Ahhh, but that’s not exactly what happened, we learn! First we saw Angus’s older brother, also a doctor, tell him that he did the right thing, that Gordon tried to kill two women that day and would have gone on to kill more if Angus hadn’t acted as he did.
He continues by telling his shaken brother that he must never tell anyone what really happened: “You and I take this to our graves!”
What really happened is that as the doctor began trying to stop the gushing blood from the homicidal stalker’s neck wound, the maniac muttered, “I’m going to kill that bitch,” presumably meaning Dr. Pineda. Horrified, Angus pins Gordan’s arms to the concrete and lets him bleed out.
The show allowed the episode to end suggesting that Angus’s actions were excusable and even admirable. It’s a rigged scenario, rather like the way “Dirty Harry” rationalizes Harry’s torturing another madman to find out where’s he buried a teenage girl alive. This monster already has slashed two women and attempted to rape one of them. As one fan site asked, “Does what Angus did make him a killer or just human?”
Neither is the issue. To begin with, that’s a false dichotomy: he can easily be both. Never mind, though: whether what he did is murder—it almost certainly is—it is definitely an epic breach of medical ethics. To doctors, a life is a life is a life. It doesn’t and must not matter whether the patient is Mother Theresa or Jack the Ripper; all lives have equal value in the eyes of the profession, and a doctor must neither judge nor base his zeal as a physician on a patient’s life’s past or present value. This isn’t a matter of debate or controversy. It is a medical ethics absolute, and while there are exceptions, this isn’t one.
Elsewhere in the episode, a doctor who worked on the dying stalker was grilled on the question of whether she could do a competent job knowing that he had harmed two of her colleagues. That hints at the ethical standards, but the objective of the questioning was to determine whether an unavoidable conflict of interest should have led her to let someone else work on Gordon. Here there is no question at all: what Dr. Leighton did was unethical, unprofessional and wrong. Always.
Yes, he’s human, and he may be a murderer, but he’s definitely an unethical doctor.
Oh yes, I almost forgot: the other Dr. Leighton is ethically bound to report his brother, not swear him to silence.