Campus Free Speech

Indiana University Professor Apologizes for Triggering Medical Students With 'I Can't Breathe' Exam Question

"We understand that the context in which this phrase was used resulted in a very painful trigger for many of you."


An assistant professor at Indiana University School of Medicine apologized after an exam question that used the phrasing "I can't breathe" drew complaints from some students who found it upsetting and insensitive in the wake of George Floyd's death under the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

"We understand that the context in which this phrase was used resulted in a very painful trigger for many of you," wrote Daniel Corson-Knowles, an assistant professor of clinical medicine, in a message to his students.

Screenshots of the message, and of students discussing it in an online chat forum, were obtained by Reason. The College Fix also reported the incident.

The exam question was as follows: "A patient who missed dialysis suddenly becomes pale, diaphoretic, and screams, 'I can't breathe!' You glance at the monitor and notice the following rhythm. You are unable to palpate a pulse and initiate immediate CPR. The most appropriate next step in therapy is…"

According to Corson-Knowles, the question was written long before the phrase "I can't breathe" became associated with police violence or #BlackLivesMatter activism, and reflects "phrasing we might hear in a clinical setting from patients."

The professor apologized for not removing the question from the exam and vowed to review course materials for intrinsic bias, microaggressions, and other problematic or traumatizing content.

It's not clear how many students complained about the phrasing. In the forum messages I reviewed, most students did not seem personally offended by it, but rather were worried that others were offended.

The student who shared the professor's apology with The College Fix and Reason thought shielding would-be doctors from the phrase "I can't breathe" was more than a little ridiculous. It's hard to disagree. Having difficulty breathing is a relatively common medical ailment: If hearing this declaration is going to cause you to have a panic attack, you probably need to overcome that before you earn your medical license.

It's doubtful, of course, that any of the students are actually so bothered by "I can't breathe" that hearing the phrase would debilitate them. But in that case, professors shouldn't need to bend over backward to satisfy unreasonable demands for emotional comfort. Unfortunately, my 2019 book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, is full of examples of academics forced to do exactly that.

Hypersensitivity to traumas and triggers has become quite common on elite campuses, but research has repeatedly shown that trying to avoid psychological harm by accommodating or forewarning students is ineffective. Indeed, yet another recent study on trigger warnings reach this same conclusion.

Update: The initial photo accompanying this article depicted a different branch of Indiana University, and has been updated.