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Erasing Memories
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Via Neurophilosophy, here's an interesting story about a doctor carrying out a biopsy on a patient who, during the procedure, learns the prognosis:

"Dr. Haig?" A voice over the intercom, harsh and loud.

"Yes," I said. "Is this path lab?"

"Yes, can I put on Dr. Morales?" the voice replied, referring to the pathologist looking at the microscope slides of Ellen's specimen.

"Have him call in on the phone," I said. The drill, which everyone knew, was that the circulating nurse would hold the phone to my ear while the pathologist told me what he saw.

But instead of an "O.K." there was silence, and then, "Scott, this is Jorge, can you hear me?"

"Yes, but hold on, we're under local in here," I said. "You'd better call the desk and have them put you through to the phone in the room."

"Scott, I can barely hear you but, listen, this is a wildly pleomorphic tumor, very anaplastic. I can't tell..."

"Hold on, Jorge — let me use the..." But he couldn't hear me and kept on talking.

"...what the cell type is, but it's a really, really, bad..."

The circulator was moving toward the intercom on the wall, but she wasn't going to make it.


Ellen's shuddering gasp, then shrieks came from under the drapes: "Oh, my God. Oh, my God. My kids. Oh, my... my arm..."

The burning pain in Ellen's arm was due to the rapid application of propofol, a paper-white liquid medication, which the perceptive Dr. Frank had plugged into Ellen's IV the second he heard the c-word. When he saw her reaction, he pushed. The drug, sometimes called "milk of amnesia," stings some patients sharply in the veins, but what it also does is erase your last few minutes. (Think of the "neuralyzer" from the Men in Black movies.) Oh, and it puts you to sleep. An amazing molecule, a great anesthesiologist and a great save.

No, not a great save...a violation of patient's rights. If the patient became agitated to the point where she might harm herself or others, the anesthesiologist could have administered something to calm her. But erasing her memories? Hell no.

A more ambiguous case might arise if a patient actually wanted their memory erased. The ethics of whether or not a doctor should perform such a procedure even there are sketchy. In the case told in the story, it seems clear cut. Altering someone's memory without their consent is wrong. Our memories are who we are. When you alter or erase someone's memory you are denying them part of their life. And even if it's a bad experience, one person has no right to make that choice for another person.

The story doesn't say if the incident was ever reviewed by any hospital boards or committees. If it was, I can't believe it made it past review. If it wasn't, the doctor and the anesthesiologist should have been canned.

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