Last year I was diagnosed with cancer and went through several months of chemotherapy. The good news is that I survived the cancer, which is now considered to be “in remission.” The bad news is that I’m still not sure if I’ve survived the chemo.
Recently I’ve thought of this question while listening to political pundits debate whether government cures for the coronavirus pandemic (business shutdowns, stay-at-home orders, and massive financial bailouts) are perhaps worse than the disease itself. I guess the answer depends on whether the “cures” caused you to lose your job or your business – or whether you’ve experienced the tragic loss of a loved one due to COVID-19.
While I would rather not get into the coronavirus debate, let me just point out that many of the medical projections and models have been grossly off target. And the jury is still out on what has worked and what hasn’t worked in “flattening the curve” and limiting the pandemic’s spread.
Don’t misunderstand my point. Doctors mean well. I’m grateful for their service to humanity. But sometimes doctors are wrong – even dead wrong.
A few historical cases come to mind when doctors got things drastically wrong…
What Killed George Washington?
The first President of the United States died on December 14, 1799, at the age of 67. He was two years into retirement and seemingly in good health. However, after working outside on his estate amid inclement weather one day, Washington woke up in the middle of the night with a sore throat and severe congestion.
Less than 24 hours later, the father of our country was dead.
The historical account makes it clear that Washington’s doctors contributed to his speedy death. Their primary treatment for his congestion was bloodletting, a common practice at the time that supposedly would remove the “dirty blood.” In reality, bloodletting only weakens a patient, but the medical experts thought they knew best.
In just 12 hours, the doctors removed 80 ounces of Washington’s blood – 40% of his entire blood supply. If that wasn’t bad enough, they also gave him enemas and a putrid concoction to make him to vomit. While doctors today would have given him additional fluids, Washington’s esteemed physicians literally bled him dry.
Okay, perhaps we shouldn’t judge these doctors too harshly. They were just doing their best, based on the accepted medical knowledge at that time. Nevertheless, they were seriously misguided, which unintentionally hastened Washington’s demise.
Critics of the ongoing business shutdown to thwart the coronavirus might ask, “Is this just another form of bloodletting?” It depends on your perspective, I guess.
What Killed James Garfield?
If doctors unwittingly had a hand in killing George Washington, an even more bizarre story unfolded in the death of our 20th President, James A. Garfield. If you’re a student of history, you may have been told that Garfield died because of an assassin’s bullets. While that’s true in part, it’s not the whole story.
The major facts are not in dispute: On July 2, 1881, Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C.
Guiteau, a disgruntled and delusional office seeker, readily acknowledged shooting the President – yet he claimed to be innocent of Garfield’s death. In one of the most novel murder defenses imaginable, Guiteau said Garfield would not have died if it hadn’t been for the poor treatment he received from his doctors.
Incredibly, Guiteau argued that the attempted cures by Garfield’s doctors had done more damage than the assailant’s bullets which struck the President’s back and arm. Guiteau said, “Garfield died from medical malpractice, and the doctors who mistreated him ought to bear the odium of his death. They ought to be indicted for murdering James A. Garfield, and not me.”
Quite a creative defense, don’t you think? However, the jury found Guiteau guilty, and he was executed by hanging.
Yet Guiteau was not entirely wrong in his assessment of the President’s medical care. Garfield didn’t pass away until 11 weeks after the shooting, and medical experts today would have classified his original wounds as nonlethal.
However, Dr. Willard Bliss and about a dozen other physicians had probed Garfield’s wound with unsterilized fingers and instruments – an accepted practice for that day. As a result, historians agree that massive infection was a significant factor in the President’s death. In addition to the doctors’ unsanitary procedures, the autopsy report showed that they had accidentally punctured Garfield’s bladder three or four weeks after the shooting.
What a sad outcome. Due to Guiteau’s bullets and poor treatment by the President’s esteemed physicians, Garfield’s presidency lasted just six and a half months.
I thank God for our doctors and other medical caregivers. However, sometimes the outcomes are unfortunate. This was true even in Bible days, when we’re told of a woman who had been hemorrhaging blood for 12 years: “She suffered many things from many physicians. She had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse” (Mark 5:25-34).
Things have come a long way in the medical community in recent centuries. However, the stories of the bleeding woman, George Washington, and James A. Garfield are an important reminder: Doctors aren’t infallible. Whenever we receive medical care, we should exercise prayer and discernment.
In the same way, we all should exercise prayer and discernment as our nation’s leaders seek to cure our medical and economic maladies caused by COVID-19. Will the cures be worse than the disease? Time will tell.