It's Not Smart for Cops To Pick Fights With Doctors and Nurses


Emergency Room
Thierry Geoffroy

Yesterday's story about doctors refusing to comply with a court order to pump a suspect's stomach, and a related case about a nurse arrested for the same "offense," reminded me of a friend of mine. He's a physician with a short temper who currently works for a public agency to remain unnamed unless he fails to buy the drinks the next time we see each other. Many, many years ago he worked a rotation in an emergency room in an eastern urban location. One day, he was pulled over for a traffic violation by a local cop who proceeded to display an array of puffing, threatening and abusive behavior of the sort we cover here. After an extended dose of this crap, my buddy turned to the cop, probably with a vein throbbing in his temple, if I know him, and said something to the effect of, "I work at X hospital in the emergency room. God help you if you ever end up there." The encounter abruptly ended on a note of detente.

In this world, there are people it's dangerous to piss off, and that's as true for judges and police officers as it is for anybody else. When I was vice president of a law school (I later dropped out) branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, a prominent civil liberties advocate spoke at one of our functions and suggested that physicians should respond to legislative and judicial intrusions into their autonomy and the privacy of their patients by refusing to treat lawmakers, judges and members of their families. His point was that doctors have much more power than they realize. He was (and is) right, but doctors are generally poorly organized and not especially political, and that battle never came to pass. But physicians, nurses and other medical practitioners certainly have the power to retaliate quietly against those who would abuse them, their colleagues and their staff.

It's dangerous enough for police and government officials to offend lawyers, computer programmers and powerful figures of all sorts — those people have some ability to retaliate, officially or not so much, for mistreatment. But with such people, officials can often shield their names and drag out proceedings. With medical practitioners, however, at some point, it's you, them, delicate body functions and sharp, pointy instruments. If those practitioners associate your face with bad memories…well, accidents happen.

That's why I find it inexplicable when I read passages like this from the Broward/Palm Beach New Times:

Marjorie Depalis-Lachaud was working as a nurse at a Palm Beach Veterans Administration hospital when a man came in with injuries from a car accident. Shortly after, Palm Beach County Sheriff's Deputy Kenneth Noel came in and interviewed the man. Noel suspected the man was driving drunk, and he wanted to get a blood sample to prove it.

At 10:30, he came to the nurses' station and told them he needed them to take a blood sample from the man. Two nurses told him hospital policy stated they could take blood from patients only when told to by a doctor. Depalis-Lachaud says she consulted with a supervisor and told Noel they were "waiting for the doctor to see if he gives an order to get the blood."

Noel didn't like that answer and handcuffed Depalis-Lachaud over what she claims were the protests of pretty much every official at the hospital. He said she was obstructing his investigation. She was never prosecuted.

So…Deputy Noel angered not just a nurse who might treat him should he require emergency medical attention at that hospital, but all of her colleagues. That strikes me, unless the staff at that hospital are all angels, as a risky, risky move.

I'm not an angel. I'm also not a physician, let alone the ER director at the West Palm Beach Veterans Administration Medical Center, so I can present the following conversation as a pure hypothetical that will never occur:

J.D. Tuccille, MD: Deputy, I'd like your full name and badge number please.

Deputy Noel: Sure. You going to file a complaint?

J.D. Tuccille, MD: Probably. But I'm more concerned that my staff will be…unmotivated should you ever enter our facility in need of medical care, after the way you've treated their colleague. And when they accidentally sew a cop's balls into his mouth, it shouldn't be the wrong guy.

No matter how powerful you are, there are people you should not piss off.