When a patient’s death is broadcast without permission
January 2, 2015 in Medical Technology
This story was co-published with the New York Times.
Anita Chanko could not sleep. At 4 a.m., on an August night in 2012, she settled onto the couch in her Yorkville living room with her dog, Daisy, and her parrot, Elliott, and flipped on the DVR. On came the prior night’s episode of ” NY Med,” the popular real-life medical series set at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, starring Dr. Mehmet Oz. Mrs. Chanko, 75, was a fan of the show and others like it.
“It starts off, there’s a woman with stomach cancer and her family, and then there’s somebody with a problem with their baby, I think it was a heart,” she remembered. “And then I see the doctor that treated my husband.”
Mark Chanko, her husband, had died 16 months earlier, in April 2011, after being struck by a sanitation truck while crossing a street near his home. The doctors and nurses at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center tried in vain to save his life.
On the TV screen, she saw the chief surgery resident Sebastian Schubl, responding to an emergency in which a man is hit by a vehicle.
“And then I see, even with the blurred picture, you could tell it was him,” she said. “You could hear his speech pattern. I hear my husband say, ‘Does my wife know I’m here?’.”
There was no doubt in her mind: The blurred-out man moaning in pain was her husband of almost 46 years, the Korean War veteran she met in a support group for parents without partners.
“I hear them saying his blood pressure is falling. I hear them getting out the paddles and then I hear them saying, ‘OK, are you ready to pronounce him?’.”
She clenched her fists so tightly that “the palms of my hands almost looked like stigmata” and her mouth got so dry that her tongue stuck to the roof “as if I had just eaten a whole jar of peanut butter.”
“I saw my husband die before my eyes.”
No one in the Chanko family had given “NY Med” permission to film Mr. Chanko’s treatment at the hospital or to broadcast the moments leading up to his death.
Such moments — indeed, all of the intimate details of a person’s health — are supposed to be shared only with a patient and whoever they designate, under a federal law known as Hipaa.
In the 18 years since the law was passed, doctors and hospitals have put in place an ever-expanding list of rules meant to protect patient privacy. Hospitals warn staff members not to discuss patients’ conditions on elevators. Drug stores ask customers to stand back so they don’t overhear information about others’ prescriptions.