How to Save a Life: Humanizing Technology

The call comes at 5:40 a.m.  “We had to start CPR.  Your dad’s heart is having ‘funny’ rhythms.”  The voice is kind.

And unconvincing. Isn’t CPR used for when a heart … stops?

By the time I get to the hospital, I hear that they had to do the whole scene familiar to millions from ER:  nurses on my dad’s chest counting, “1, 2, 3… 1, 2, 3!” and finally … the paddles and defibrillator:  “Clear!”

They bought him time.  But not much.

As if I could ever forget, it was an intense reminder that in medicine — as in technology — humanity makes all the difference.  

A quick story.

The cardiologist assigned to him in the hospital was clearly kind and very bright; I’ll call him Dr. Smaht.

Dr. Smaht explained to us that he would recommend an angioplasty for my father, despite his age; despite his other statistically complicating factors  — which he enumerated.

  • The statistical probability (by percentage) that he could die.
  • The statistical probability (by percentage) that he could need dialysis.
  • The statistical probability (by percentage) of a stroke.

Dr. Smaht concluded by saying, “obviously, there are risks, but it’s probably still worth it to at least do exploratory surgery — that’s an angiogram. Then if the contrast dye doesn’t send him into kidney failure, if it seems necessary, do an angioplasty as well.”  He waits, sure that the numbers will sway my father.  Percentages, to him, speak loudly.

But then, my father is hard of hearing.   So to speak.

My father inhales into  his oxygen tubes.  “I don’t even remember having a heart attack.”  He pauses, and looks Dr. Smaht  in the eye.  “I’m a newspaper guy.  I need a second source.  I want a second opinion.”

So I call my friend, Dr. Jay Reusch, cardiologist.  Married to my dear friend, Dr. Jane Reusch — one of the top endocrinologists in the country.

A few years ago, Jay Reusch helped my Dad deal with getting a pacemaker.  Last year, he was on the cover of Denver’s 5280 magazine*  (which for those of you who care, has been reinvigorated by former Red Herring and CMP poobah Luc Hatlestad, among others; it has blossomed in his tenure).

I gave Jay so much s**t about this.  I mean, every time I went to the grocery store, there was Jay gazing calmly at me.  I’d roll my eyes back at him.  And I know I wasn’t the only one.   We’re all thinking he’s on the cover because he’s sort of cute, and he’s a cardiologist.  AND he’s in a band (Dogs in the Yard – they’re good). 

Mea culpa.  I’m writing this post because the man saved my dad’s life.  Not just by being “a helluva cardiologist,” as my dad later called him;  but for being a good and confident enough doctor that he did not hide behind statistics. 

Where Dr. Smaht had painstakingly explained the numbers, the technical points, the statistical probabilities, Jay Reusch sat down like frickin’ Hawkeye Pierce and said:

 “Art.  If you hadn’t been in the hospital last night, you’d be dead.”

He took my Dad’s hand, waited until he had my Dad’s full attention and said loudly and calmly: 

“I’m sure you have questions.  I would too, and I’ll do my best to answer them.  Yes, there are risks.  But the benefits outweigh the risks.  I would have the surgery.”

He explained them, too.  In human terms.  My Dad said, “Well, you can’t ask for a better second opinion than that.  I’ll roll the dice.”

He came through the surgery very well.

It made me think about how often technology, designed as it is by engineers, focuses on what it does — not on why it matters. 

It is the first thing we tell our clients:  who cares besides you?  Why does this matter?  How can we put a human face on this technology?

Because if you can’t do that, you’re posing an intellectual answer to what may be a human problem. 

And that may leave the people who need you most… unwilling to roll the dice.

Thanks, Jay.

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1 Comment

Filed under Ethics, Science, Science and tech, Uncategorized

One response to “How to Save a Life: Humanizing Technology

  1. David Kroll

    Jay is one of the kindest human beings in the world. I was a postdoc when Jane was an endocrine fellow and I played in Dogs in the Yard with Jay from 1990 until 2001. When I was flying back and forth between Denver and my new home in Durham, NC, Jay and Jane put me up at their house when I came back to teach – open door anytime, no questions asked.

    Simply fabulous people. I’m so glad for you and your Dad that Dr. Reusch came into your lives.

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