Posted by: constantinakatsari | February 12, 2010

Slave Hospitals and Medical Negligence

Last week my students and I explored the management of Roman latifundia and American plantations. We noticed the shift from patriarchalism (sense of duty) to paternalism (sense of love and care) from the 18th to the 19th century, while we agreed that in the Roman empire both types of ideology had an impact on slave management. One of the highlights of the discussion was the existence of slave hospitals in both periods. Masters were always interested in the welfare of their slaves, either for economic or moral reasons. In any case, the presence of a doctor in the farm at all times was always advisable. In some cases, the concerned master may have spent several sleepless nights, tossing in his bed, until his investment, the valued slave, recovered fully. The hospital equipment may not have been as advanced as it is today but the people in charge seemed to care for the ill.

Let us compare now the above situation with modern day hospitals in Greece. In order to make the comparison more effective, I will give you a direct and very personal example. While I was blissfully teaching in Leicester last week, my father entered the hospital Aghios Savvas in Athens for some minor prostate surgery. We were all unconcerned about the outcome, since the procedure was straightforward and uncomplicated. A day after the operation, he started complaining about dizziness. He experienced pain in the stomach and the back. Eventually, he stopped eating and drinking altogether. He, my mother and my brothers complained to the doctors repeatedly. Doctors and nurses came into the room, took a quick look, gave him some medication for the stomach pain and left. The situation went on for 3 solid days, until my mother went hysterical. She managed to persuade one of the doctors to do some x-rays. Hours later, the doctor looked at the results and called upstairs an entire team of more than 10 people to visit my father. They graced him with half an hour discussion, more than they have ever talked to him. And they ordered him to move to another hospital. They explained to us that the antibiotic they gave him caused acute kidney failure. Three days later, they were too late. He is now at the Erythros Stavros hospital and he is doing dialysis. He may be there for months, as they explained. So far, none of them assumed responsibility for what happened. None of them said ‘I am sorry’. None of them followed up, after he was removed to the other hospital. His surgeon, the renowned urologist Dr. Pappas, was nothing like the slave doctors. No remorse, no sadness. There is no doubt that doctors and nurses were all embarrassed about their negligence, as they refused to look into the eyes of my brothers and feel the desperation. But is it enough? If they could not be paternalistic about it, couldn’t they at least show some patriarchalism? A sense of duty may have saved my father from kidney failure and the threat of death.

And the comparative point comes now. In the case of slaves, the masters have a substantial stake at the health of their ‘family white and black’. Their health guarantees future profits. In the case of my father, a poor pensioner who could not afford to pay the ‘fakelaki’ (the traditional bribe to his doctor), was of no economic consequence. Therefore, both paternalism and patriarchalism can exist only in societies where profit is directly involved. Therefore, should we threaten the hospital with a law suit even before we enter? Or should we take everyone to court after the deed, as I intend to do now?

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