Crying For Help vs. Crying “Wolf!”


This air traffic controller thought the pilot declaring an emergency was full of baloney.  I’m afraid the only baloney in his future might be the stuff he’s eating while he waits in the unemployment line.

I cannot be the only person who got angry reading this.  An airline sends an emergency plea for help to air traffic control down below.  The air traffic control decides that this is a hoax and does nothing.

The fact that everyone survives is not a defense — don’t even mention it.

I had at least one incident, early in my neurosurgery training, where I thought a patient could have sustained a broken neck in a motorcycle accident.  So I got the skull tongs and put his neck in traction.  I knew to a certainty I was following good procedure.  My actions could have saved him from quadriplegia, dependence on mechanical ventilation, or any of the horrible complications that can happen to someone with a high neck fracture.

Turns out he hadn’t fractured his neck anywhere that we could tell.

My supervising senior neurosurgeon said I did the right thing.  But the patient was mad as hell at me.

Precautions are to be taken even if it is unclear they are necessary or not.  The risk is too great to do otherwise.

I had been well trained.  It has never been easy for me to accept that sometimes the patient just would not like me – even if I did the right thing.  Perhaps this is less common in psychiatry than in neurosurgery. But 25 years later, I still believe I did the right thing.

I was in Canada at the time, and told the patient the local Canadian medical authorities would stand behind what I did. That seemed to help a bit.

Canadians have told me in a few different ways that the presence of the Crown of England represented at least a symbolic incorruptible authority.  As an American Citizen – and a native of Boston (the cradle of independence from that very crown) — I was always just a little uncomfortable with that idea.

Once while I was in Ottawa – Canada’s capital – I witnessed the opening of a legislative session where someone paraded in with the golden mace of power.  It was just like the one they used pre-revolution in colonial Williamsburg, VA – a relic of the past.

I remember sitting in the gallery of the House in Ottawa, thinking “why the hell didn’t they bother with a revolution, wouldn’t it have been better in the long run?”  That was about the same time an attaché to the Canadian government told me the American Revolution was really unnecessary bloodshed and that had opened the way for a tradition of violence in our cities.

“Huh?” was the most sophisticated verbal response I could muster at the time.

“Estelle, I know you well now,” my neurosurgery preceptor said in France.  He was about to hand me the papers that meant I had passed my oral exam and had been awarded the Doctorate in Medicine.  I could go back to the United States and resume my life.  “You love France, it is beautiful to see, but you could never have been anything but American, which is clear.”  He kissed me on both cheeks for the last time.

I am American in all sorts of ways, prouder of some than others.  I am proud of my military veteran status and U.S. Army Medical Corps service, but less proud of other things sometimes.  I seem to be part of the American tradition of questioning and criticizing government.

But I strongly believe that this questioning of authority is part of good citizenship.  Otherwise, we become sheep and history has shown us where populations of sheep have ended up.

After all, free speech was posited as one of the pillars of our existence fairly early on.

I have read several historical sources that quote Prohibition as the start of a massive popular mistrust of government.  As they say in history books, with one stroke of a pen, millions of common everyday people became criminals.

It is hard for me to conceive that consumption of alcoholic beverages was actually a crime.  But I have visited the “speakeasies”– places where bootleg alcohol was consumed. The back wall of each booth was actually a private door to the street so that guests could flee before the police sealed them in.  I know this was real.

A complete historical review is not necessary to move forward to governmental regulations and pronouncements that are ignored.

One of my favorite examples is something I think was done away with because it was so ridiculous.  If they still announce this, I have stopped listening.

I’m speaking about the Terror Alert color code.

There were colors to indicate terror alerts. Yellow when it was not so bad, red when you had to be extra careful.  Nobody ever told us “of what” we were supposed to be careful – that was a matter of national security.  As a matter of fact, the Dept. of Homeland Security went out of their way to tell us we were not supposed to change anything we were doing.  If we did, the terrorists had “won.”

Just be afwaid – be vewwy afwaid.

It is now acknowledged that the warnings were just ways to pull the publics strings and make them fearful so the current administration would win re-election.  Also, to make sure public sentiment wouldn’t turn against the various wars we declared.

Ah… those were the days!


Like most Americans, I try to go through life doing my job and taking my little pleasures.  I really never wanted to be a government-watcher when I was a student — certainly not in any way a government manipulator.  I wanted to be left alone to practice medicine.  Oh boy, I was more naive than most.

Government regulations — like the public announcements about terrorism –were not made to change our actions.  They were made to manipulate us and keep us frightened.

How dare they? Perhaps, if we are as stupid as those who purport to govern us tend to think, they keep us grateful to our government for protecting us.

Instead, what they have done is taught us to ignore our regulations.  This is a serious, life threatening attitude.

In the story about the airplane emergency, the pilot who called in the threatening situation may not have mentioned something he should have mentioned.  Hello! Anybody ever heard of anxiety? It is sometimes impossible in the best of times to do things exactly the way they should be done.  When things are going poorly, it is often impossible.

Cavalier decisions by those who are supposed to monitor emergencies – like that air traffic controller — are unfathomable.  I can only opine we are in a culture where people cannot trust.

And speaking of trust, you never know what’s in that boloney, now do you?

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