Stepping Hill Hospital - we've been here before

Posted on: 21 July 2011 by Alexander Hay

Recent deaths in a hospital are rooted in inhumanity

Are we safe in hospital?

An unfortunate pattern, it seems, is emerging once more. Five patients have died at Stepping Hill Hospital and 9 others been effected by saline drips contaminated by insulin. Some of the dead have already been released, but their ages are more telling - one, George Keep, was 84, while Arnold Lancaster was 71. A third death was named as Tracey Arden, 44, but with multiple sclerosis. The remaining man and women were 83 and 84 respectively.

While the police have arrested a nurse and continue to investigate the matter, it's worth noting that we've been here before. In 2008, a nurse called Colin Norris was given a life sentence after killing four elderly patients in his care. Again, an overdose of insulin was the cause of death, and Norris had made his dislike of older, more demanding patients clear before his arrest.

In 2007, another nurse, Barbara Salisbury, was finally struck off after being found guilty in 2004 of two counts of attempted murder. Her would-be victims, who were 88 and 92, with the latter suffering from dementia, were targeted. Apparently, this was to free up beds.

In 2000, Doctor Harold Shipman was found guilty of murdering 15 of his patients, though many other deaths are attributed to him. Again, the victims were mainly elderly though his youngest victim, a 41 year old man, was in the latter stages of stomach cancer when he died.

Worryingly, these murder killings also involve the young. In 1993, the notorious 'Angel of Death', Beverley Allitt, was jailed after murdering four children, three of whom were under two years of age, and the oldest, who was 11, was suffering from cerebral palsy. Again, the most vulnerable and the most ill were targeted by rogues who abused their position - the pattern continued.

What motivates this urge to kill? It seems that in every case, the victim was objectified by the murderer, having been deemed a burden or simply an animal in need of being put out of its misery. The increasingly common practice of Dutch patients carrying cards making clear they do not wish to be euthanised suggests a growing anxiety. The claim by medical ethicist Baronness Warnock that patients with dementia should have a 'duty to die' so as not to be a 'burden' suggests something grimmer - an acceptance that the value of human life is conditional.

That is, if a life is not, so to speak, 'viable' by the yardstick of a certain authority, then it should be brought to an end so as not to cause inconvenience. There is a logic here, but it is cold and inhuman.

It also reflects two trends. One of these is the constant denigration of our humanity on the grounds of us being an ecological threat. It is easy to see people as mere obstacles when you label them as 'breeders' and 'consumers', such as when David Beckham and his wife were accused of being irresponsible for having a fourth child. The misanthropic outlook of Thomas Malthus, who saw humans as just locusts stripping the land bare before a much-deserved famine has made a comeback in recent years.

Also insinuated, however, is a growing callousness in the medical profession overall. A nurse called Kelsey Addertonn recently posted a Facebook messages, later made public, which demanded the euthanasia of elderly patients for a range of minor offences.

Certainly, Adderton did not literally mean that society should have assisted suicide or even forced euthanasia, given the flippant, exaggerated tone of her writing.

But it does confirm a sort of misanthropy and visceral dislike of her patients. They lack purpose or use and so should be disposed of. Here, convenience takes precedence over being alive. The ultimate expression of this is the Swiss Dignatas clinic, which chares £10000 for the privilige to be killed by an organisation that repackages suicide as something convenient and just another lifestyle choice, suicide now a commodity.

But the truth is more insidious. When we hear of older patients being neglected or even totally ignored by carers, nurses and other staff, this is not done out of any strange urge to murder or a contempt for 'surplus population'. but simply a calloused, desensitised dislike of having to deal with a weaker, less capable person. This, and not serial killers, constitutes a threat to the old and infirm. The worst thing that can happen to you in hospital is not murder, but apathy.

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Alexander Hay

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