Perhaps no other form of writing demands ethical consideration more than medical writing. So many lives on the line.
But let me backtrack a bit. All writing is ethical. Writing about the environment and religion, politics and space travel, philosophy and literature–the writer’s credibility, or ethos, encourages the reader to trust the writer–or not. We may distrust (and thus avoid) any writer who does not share our views. But a writer’s ethos can win you over, no matter your political disagreements. A writer’s ethos assures you of the writer’s character, integrity, honesty, and clear purpose.
Back to medical blogs and Shara Yurkiewicz’s This May Hurt a Bit: The Intuitions, Insights, and Growing Pains of a Medical Student. Here’s an excerpt from Yurkiewicz’s post from 7 April 2014, “Post-Operative Check,” in which she addresses a patient who died on the operating table:
Did you know that many surgeons play music during operations? It was going so smoothly that we were humming along to “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?” It was during the bridge of the song that your blood pressure suddenly dropped. The anesthesiologist called it out. I looked at the monitor and saw numbers flashing in red.
There was a lot of red, actually. Blood in the wound, blood in the suction container, blood in transfusion bags, bloody footprints on the floor. No more than with any other patient. But I think somewhere along the way I learned to take the sight of liters of blood for granted.
I was scared. I stopped watching them stitch and stared at the monitor, which suddenly seemed like my closest connection to you. They called out the medications they were giving you to raise your blood pressure.
Yurkiewicz writes here as a fourth-year medical student. She has everything to gain by keeping the secrets of the operating room and nothing to gain by writing a blog post addressed to a dead man except the intangible-ness of ethical writing: respect for the dead, witnessing those last moments, pulling back the operating curtain, and remaining true to her experience. She is honest.
I consider Edward Humes’ Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash ethical writing because not only does he tell the eco-horror, he also investigates solutions. I trust him more because he doesn’t leave me a screaming puddle of apocalyptic seizures. The eco-horror: each of us Americans will generate 102 tons of trash by the time we get to our own cosmic recycling; about 28 billion pounds of food, or about 25% of our food (likely more) gets thrown away; Americans throw away 694 plastic water bottles per second. The solutions (or at least ways to make some change): the Garbage Project begun at the University of Arizona in the early 70s, the Artist-in-Residence program at the San Francisco Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Facility, the creation of the Chico bag and the Bag Monster, and the Trash Track program through the M.I.T. SENSEable City Lab. So Humes scares me, informs me, and gives me some hope.
And ethical writing means ethical research. When I found out that Alberto Rios had been named the first state poet laureate of Arizona in 2013, I posted a snide comment on Facebook about a likely connection between a state’s ranking in educational excellence and whether or not that state had a poet laureate. I was snarky. I was literarily self-righteous, convinced of the connection between inculcating a love of poetry and boosting educational standing. Then a pesky inner voice said, “How do you know?” So I had to go to the Library of Congress website and research ALL of the states and their poet laureates. And guess what? I was wrong. Massachusetts, a clear contender for educational excellence, has NEVER had a state poet laureate. I posted an apology to Facebook. That’s ethical: I was snarky, I researched, I was wrong, I apologized. The snarky part wasn’t ethical. All the stuff after the snarkiness.