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It’s Against Our Policy
Mom with a View

It’s Against Our Policy

An elderly patient died from bureaucracy without humanity.


Someone sent me a horrific news item the other day. It was the transcript of a 911 call from an assisted living facility in California. The patient desperately needed CPR in order to survive until the EMT’s arrived.

“It’s against our policy to have any of our untrained residents perform CPR,” the nurse told the dispatcher (it’s unclear why the nurse couldn’t do it herself). “Flag down a stranger,” suggests the frustrated dispatcher, offering to walk them through the steps. “The patient is going to die.”

The nurse checked with her supervisor who was adamant. It was against their policy.

You can almost hear the dispatcher banging her head against the wall and tearing her hair out. “Get me someone, anyone!” she begged (I’m paraphrasing but the emotional sense is accurate). They didn’t and, as predicted, the patient passed away.

This is, of course, “policy”, “rules” and “regulations” taken to their absurd extreme. But it’s something we confront every day – usually, thank God, with less dire but perhaps no less frustrating consequences.

Dennis Prager told a story on his radio show of a young woman trying to withdraw money from her bank account. This particular branch required a scan of the right index finger as identification. Unfortunately this customer was missing that digit. The teller refused her request to use an alternative form of identification and denied her withdrawal. “It’s branch policy,” asserted the bank employee. (I get tense just writing about this absurd scenario.)

These are tales of bureaucracy gone awry. While there is certainly a role for rules and regulations, a little flexibility is necessary. We need to be on guard lest we get so caught up in the policies that we forget the human element.

I remember one vacation when we drove to the beach to go bike riding. The parking cost was significant but it was going to be an afternoon’s entertainment. We paid upon entry but as drove by the bike rental shop, we saw that it was closed. We immediately returned to the ticket booth, explaining that we were leaving due to the unavailability of bikes and politely requested a refund. It was a no go. “But we were here less than two minutes,” we explained. We went around and around in circles – to no avail. Finally we left. It wasn’t even the financial loss that bothered me (well maybe it was!). It was the rigidity, the inflexibility, the illogic, and the lack of humanity.

I always try to clarify my position – “I was just dropping someone off.” “I got lost.” “It was the other party’s mistake; why is the bank charging me?” – and almost always to deaf ears, to people immune to reason, to those who are so hemmed in by the rules they can’t see their own irrationality. I feel like I’m trapped in a scene from Kafka.

What makes people stop thinking? Why do they lose perspective? How can they fail to see the human being in front of them? Where is their empathy, their sense of common humanity? What if it was their mother in the facility for seniors? What if it was their bank account?

My daughter once had a job that required access to the last four digits of their clients’ social security numbers. “I can’t give that to you,” one zealous phone rep said, “we’re only allowed to give out the whole number!”

I think that rigid bureaucracy is a reflection of a breakdown of society; it’s substituting rules for community, for caring, for trust – and often for intelligent thought.

And only through truly caring about each individual, through sincerely trying to put ourselves in their shoes, through a real effort at treating them the way we like to be treated can we break its stranglehold and return to humanity and good sense.

March 9, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 21

(16) Anonymous, March 14, 2013 12:21 AM

a little thought could change a lot

But the bank teller could have phoned someone higher up and asked what to do in the case of a missing digit!!! Let the higher up people decide what can be used in place of the missing digit. I am thinking the person at the assisted living facility could have explained why they can't do it, to the obviously distressed 911 operator. The parking lot attendant could also have said more, maybe even that it is company policy and that he has asked about this situation and told that no refunds are given no matter what. But of course, that would mean that he would have to have the ambition to ask, which would mean he cared. No thought given, no explanation offered because no one cares about the next person's distress. Each lost in his only self, his own troubles. This American culture is destructive, my advice is to cling to Judaism and the Jewish people. Today they don't care about your distress, tomorrow they don't care about your life! Who is going to trust this society not to allow Jews to die!!!

(15) Anonymous, March 13, 2013 10:20 PM

Justice Scalia is a hero....

Mr. London unfortunately does not appreciate the genius, dedication or moral stature of perhaps the only Supreme Court member who understands and cares that both the Consitution and civilization are in the process of being devastated beyond repair.

(14) Bill Josephs, March 13, 2013 7:35 PM

Just look at TENACH

Aside from the fact that this story was not up-to-date (it turned-out that the elderly woman did not wish to be revived, so all's well that ends well). King Solomon told us that there is nothing new under the sun.

In the time of Judges, a little boy was very ill. He needed the help of a powerful person who would enlist HaShem to help heal the child. Eli the Judge and Pincus, the Cohen, could not make up there minds as to who should come to consult with the other over it; and in the process the boy died.

Consequently HaShem removed the spirit from Pincus and he was no longer a Cohen. Eli lived until 98, when the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant.

Given who we are, it is our responsibility to understand the whole story and also to recognize that we have little to gain from casting aspersions.

(13) Dvirah, March 13, 2013 7:10 PM

Who Runs the System

No system, however good on paper, can be better than the people who run it. In some cases, the rigidity is about control, not corporate policy. While most "service" workers I've met have conscienciously done their best to help me, I've run across a few who use their positions to stoke their own egos by being deliberately obstructionist, thus showing off thier "power" over others. And sometimes the person is so insecure in his/her job that he/she just doesn't dare to deviate from the "letter of the law" of their company.

It takes wisdom and courage to bend the rules. It also takes not blind obedience but an understanding of the reasons behind the ruling (cf. comment 11) to know when it can be safely bent.

(12) Elizabeth, March 13, 2013 6:05 PM

Policies are sometimes there for reasons, and news stories sometimes get key facts wrong.

Please read "The CPR Death at Glenwood Garden" for more details about the story you use to motivate this column. "Lorraine Bayless ... did not die of a heart attack but of a stroke, according to the death certificate signed by her personal physician. CPR may have saved her, but it is very unlikely...Mrs. Bayless did not want life-prolonging medical interventions, and her family is fully satisfied with the care she received. And the staffer who called 9-11 may not have been a licensed nurse at all. "

Policies may seem uncaring, but often they exist for good reasons. And there is often more to a story than first appears.

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