Re-scripting Code Pink

Marching in 2004.
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I worked at a community health clinic that was housed in an old restored firehouse with old plumbing designed for a few firefighters and not for hundreds of patients each day. We fairly regularly had “Code Brown” called over the clinic loudspeaker when the sewer system backed up into clinic areas. Sometimes they closed the clinic until it was cleared. Sometimes we worked around it. That’s community health.

I have never worked where they called “Code Pink” and I think I am glad of that. It sounds as if it should be a mammogram emergency. According to nursing leadership expert, former Dean of the Kansas School of Nursing, and current hospital mystery writer Eleanor Sullivan, Code Pink is called by a nurse in a hospital who is being bullied by physicians or others. In her letter to the NYT editor in today’s paper (Sunday May 15th), she writes, “The word is passed nurse to nurse, and colleagues gather around the beleaguered nurse. Few physicians can stand the scrutiny of neutral-faced nurses standing silent beside one of their own.” Somehow I don’t picture the nurses as neutral-faced. All four letters today in “When Doctors Humiliate Nurses” were supportive of Theresa Brown’s Op-ed article “Physician Heel Thyself.” All four letters were relatively bland, especially compared with the responses to her article found elsewhere.

Dr. Kevin Pho on his popular blog KevinMD.com, has already written two posts on Theresa Brown’s article. In his first blog post entitled “Theresa Brown unfairly blames doctors for hospital bullying” he states, “Brown has a prominent media platform in the New York Times, and, in a way, she wields it here to metaphorically bully the entire physician profession.” Many self-identified physicians who responded to Dr. Pho’s blog post were supportive of his read of Ms. Brown’s articles, although most stated they refused to (literally) read anything she writes… One person identified as “David MD” did the math, dismissed Ms. Brown as a neophyte nurse since she has a pre-existing PhD and pre-existing children, and admonished her for “extracurricular writing” that “must have violated the terms of her employment at Shadyside Hospital.” He concludes, “From the tone of her other blogs, she must be an absolute nightmare to work with.” David MD stated that he had written a letter to the editor of the NYT in protest of her article.

In his follow-up blog post, “Doctor bashing and confronting physicians in the media,” Dr. Pho admitted that Ms. Brown’s article had brought the topic of hospital bullying into the national health care conversation. He applauded her for bringing up such a difficult topic in the NYT. But he still takes issue with her method, calling it an “adversarial approach,” and alluding to it as “doctor bashing.” He even likens it to the case of the Seattle nurse Kim Hiatt being fired by Children’s Hospital for a medication error, stating that neither will solve larger systemic issues within health care. Instead, for physician bullying, he places blame on the medical education system for perpetuating the socialization of arrogance and bad manners in medical students. That line of reasoning makes no sense to me: Medical education is by and for physicians.

What I find fascinating in many of the physician blog posts and comments to Ms. Brown’s article, is the resentment that, 1) she is a nurse and she can write well, and 2) she has a national media platform through the NYT. In his second blog post on Ms. Brown’s article, Dr. Pho writes, “Brown is a former English professor, and it’s no wonder that the framing of the piece is masterful.” Some of the posts by physicians call for her hospital administration to silence her. In Ms. Brown’s recent article entitled “Nurse as Writer, Writer as Nurse” published in the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing (April 2011), she acknowledges that dealing with hospital management has been tricky when it comes to her writing. She never identifies the hospital where she works, although as she says it’s easy enough to figure out who her employer is. She states that when she first started writing, the hospital management wanted editorial control over everything she wrote. “Knowing this was a request they could not legally make, I said, ‘No,’ and have had to repeat this refusal more than once. It’s not always easy, and at times I wasn’t sure I was tough enough to stand up to the healthcare corporation I work for.” I do not know what sorts of blowback Ms. Brown is currently getting from her hospital administration over her NYT Op-ed article “Physician, Heel Thyself.” But if she is feeling this heat, perhaps she could call a Code Pink of the Dr. Sullivan type. I contend that she has done vastly more through her ‘popular press’ writing to effect positive change in nursing and health care than any amount of academic journal articles or IOM reports or White Papers.

For those of you in the Seattle-area, Theresa Brown will be speaking at a public event next week at the University of Washington. Sponsored by Poets and Writers and the School of Nursing, Ms. Brown will give a talk entitled “Nurse as Writer, Writer as Nurse,” UW Health Sciences, Room T-625, Thursday May 26th 10:30-12:20pm. The following is the blurb I wrote to describe the event:

Theresa Brown is an oncology nurse, author of Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life, and Everything in Between (harperstudio, 2010), and is a regular contributor to the New York Times’ Well blog. In a recent article entitled “Nurse as Writer, Writer as Nurse” in the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, Ms. Brown addresses the most common questions people ask her, such as, “What about patient confidentiality?” “Do you take notes at work?” and “How do your coworkers (and employer) feel about your writing?” A former English professor who found her true calling as a nurse, Ms. Brown will talk about her dual paths as writer and as nurse.

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