The other day, in criticizing a frivolous and annoying but otherwise harmless article in the New York Times, I wrote this:
I really like the New York Times. Really, I do. It’s generally the second or third site I visit when I sit down for breakfast every morning (after my own wee blog and the LoOG main page, natch), and it’s an invaluable source of high-quality news and opinions. Not for nothing is it the paper of record.
But, man. They sure do manage to publish some dreck, too.
I am beginning to revise my opinion of the Gray Lady. The more of its medical reporting I read, the more obvious its editorial biases become. It was blatant in the article I discussed about Ina May Gaskin, in which not a single obstetrician was quoted offering a contrary take on her controversial home birthing practices. In fairness, I thought I saw it in their article about the tragic death of Rory Staunton, but much of that impression was my own error in overlooking lab data they had provided but that I had missed the first time I read it.
What’s set me off again this morning is this article about the similarly-tragic death of Sabrina Seelig, in this case after having been treated at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center. (I have no past or present affiliation with that hospital.) As with the death of Rory Staunton, the article certainly raises one’s concerns about the care that Ms. Seelig received and whether negligence contributed to her death despite there being no verdict to that effect after the family sued for malpractice. However, so evident are the author’s biases to me that it makes me question how fairly she is reporting the facts. In my opinion, she actually does the dead young woman and her family a disservice by giving a reader reason to question her objectivity, and thus undermining what may otherwise be a pretty damning case against the hospital and members of its staff.
I want to state up front that, as far as I am able to create a coherent picture in my mind of the treatment delivered to Ms. Seelig, it really does seem to me that she was given shoddy and negligent care. I have no interest in trying to defend Wyckhoff Heights Medical Center or the medical providers there. My beef is entirely related to how the case was reported.
My problems begin here:
About 10:45 a.m., she called 911.
“I, I, I think I’m poisoned,” she says on the recording of the call, which was provided to her parents after her death.
“I think after taking Ephedra, I looked online but I took Valerian, which is maybe poison, but I am having a hard time,” she went on. Valerian is an herbal sleep remedy, which some toxicologists believe is a kind of placebo, with no medicinal qualities.
To my reading, the author’s inclusion of that last detail is meant to dissuade readers from thinking that Ms. Seelig’s death could be attributable to something she ingested before she arrived at the emergency department, and thus was more likely to have been the fault of the providers there. She would just as easily have noted that herbal supplements are not subject to FDA regulation, and can be adulterated with ingredients other than what is on the label. The one fact is no less relevant than the other.
However, that’s nothing compared to how I feel about this:
Ms. Seelig was an organ donor, so by the time of the autopsy, her body had already been carved up. The medical examiner concluded that she had died of “water intoxication,” which usually means becoming overloaded with water without enough salt. [emphasis added here and in later quotes]
“Carved up”? There wasn’t a less ghoulish, non-inflammatory way that the author could have phrased that? If Ms. Seelig wanted her organs to be donated, there was nothing at all wrong with abiding by those generous wishes. Way to make organ donation, a life-saving gift to the desperately ill, look as barbaric as possible, New York Times.
In 2007, when Ms. Seelig was a patient, the state ordered Wyckoff to hire a management consultant to improve its governance and finances. Five years later, it is still struggling. The Brooklyn district attorney has been investigating allegations of mismanagement. A three-month investigation by The New York Times, the results of which were published in March, found a history of insider dealing and positions being given to people with political ties. The hospital officials involved denied any wrongdoing. The hospital does not carry malpractice insurance.
Fascinating details, I suppose. None of it has anything to do with Ms. Seelig’s care, however, at least insofar as the author bothers to connect them. As far as I can tell, their inclusion in the article serves only to make Wyckhoff look shady.
The details that follow in the article certainly make me concerned that Ms. Seelig was given very poor care. She was given sedating medication, restrained and poorly monitored. Again, as far as I can gather from this article, I wouldn’t want my loved ones getting care like that. If the author had stuck to those facts, I would have no trouble with this piece.
But this next is appalling:
The plaintiffs’ expert, Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, argued that Ms. Seelig had been ignored while she suffered an agonizing death of hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, which if she were awake would have led to a feeling of being “suffocated,” from the combined effects of the sedative drugs she had been given.
Dr. Johnson-Arbor stood alone against three defense experts, one for Dr. Mardach, one for the nurse and one for the hospital and its intern, Dr. Kaul. She was hugely pregnant; they were all middle-aged men in suits.
Well, then I guess the only possible explanation for the jury siding with the defense is that they were nothing but sexist assholes who think pregnant women are stupid. Surely all right-thinking readers will come to the same obvious conclusion, and the notion that the defense simply presented a stronger case can be dismissed out of hand as male chauvinist claptrap.
After a day and a half of deliberations, the jury of four men and two women returned its verdict: Wyckoff and the individuals working there had not been negligent.
The jury did not seem to identify with Ms. Seelig.
One juror, Marat Leychik, 23, an unemployed graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice who lives with his parents in Coney Island, said he had never had to use any stimulants, not even caffeine, to write a paper. “She, in my opinion, overexerted herself,” he said.
Another juror, Irene Katzos, 39, a homemaker turned breadwinner from Bay Ridge, said that unlike Ms. Seelig she was “not artsy.” When the Poison Control call was played, Ms. Katzos saw tears streaming down the face of Ms. Seelig’s father, who was hearing the recording for the first time. “I swore I would never look over there again,” she said.
By this point, I’m pretty skeptical about those cherry-picked quotes from two jurors, which further emphasize the author’s unsubtle implication that Ms. Seelig was obviously the victim of malpractice. The jury was just too stupid and unsympathetic to see it. Why else include unflattering details like that one juror is unemployed (clearly his fault, given the robust job market these days) and that the other describes herself in different terms than how the victim is depicted in the piece? Again, only a heartless fool could possibly think that their verdict was actually based on the evidence of the case as presented at trial.
I’ll just go ahead and say one more time that I’m not at all convinced that Ms. Seelig’s death was not related to negligence on the part of the medical staff that took care of her at Wyckhoff. (Unlike in the article about the Staunton case, however, it does not appear that the Times has provided Ms. Seelig’s lab data, so I have no way of knowing to what degree they were abnormal and warranted closer attention.) My complaints are entirely related to how the case is presented by the paper. But the piece is rife with bias, clearly against the hospital and its staff. If the case against them was as strong as the author seems to think it is, then intelligent readers should be able to come to that conclusion without her heavy-handed coaxing.