Yesterday's News

Breaking ground: Educator here devised state's first undergrad bioethics course

By FRANK BOYETT, The Gleaner
June 11, 2005

Determining the right thing to do is pretty easy most of the time. Summoning up the courage to do it is where most of us fall down.

It's that last little sliver of the pie chart that causes us to scratch our heads. You want to hear the scary news? That little sliver is getting bigger all the time.

Nowhere is that statement more true than in the field of medicine. As medical technology advances, new ethical dilemmas arrive on our doorstep almost daily. The sad case of Terri Schiavo, whose body succumbed to starvation and dehydration in Florida on March 31, illustrates that in about as pointed a manner as possible.

A quarter-century ago Marianne Walker decided it was time to do something about that very problem, which she felt was of crucial importance to nursing students at Henderson Community College. As of 1980 she was an assistant professor of English and philosophy, and in that role she devised what was the state of Kentucky's first undergraduate class in bioethics.

"I just thought there ought to be one," said Walker, who is now an adjunct professor at HCC. "Of course, I was young and didn't realize how much work it would be, so I just plowed ahead. There were no other undergraduate courses in bioethics at that time."

She developed the course after nursing students in her regular ethics class kept wanting to talk about the Karen Anne Quinlan case. In case you don't remember, Quinlan was a young woman in New Jersey who stopped breathing and suffered severe brain damage in 1975; she was the subject of a famous right-to-die lawsuit.

That was one of the primary questions the course explored, according to the course proposal: "When can we say that a patient being kept alive by resuscitative and supportive measures is dead?"

The Quinlan case didn't exactly provide clear-cut resolution to that question. After she was removed from the resuscitator, she continued to live for more than eight years, and finally died of pneumonia.

The question of when death occurs also was the focus of debate in the Schiavo case, of course. It hasn't been answered to everyone's satisfaction, but the process of working it out is on-going in the field of bioethics.

"Bioethics was really a new field at that time," Williams said recently. "Medicine moves ahead so quickly. It doesn't wait for philosophers to come up with answers. That's why we're having this big debate about stem cell research."

The term "bioethics" was fairly new at the time Williams came up with her idea for a new course; it dates to the early 1970s. "The problems tagged as 'bioethical' have impact on a labyrinth of areas," she said in her course proposal. "Dedicated to preserving the most cherished human values, it assures that medical technology serves man and not the reverse."

The course "Bioethics: Moral Problems in Health Care," is no longer offered at HCC. "We haven't offered it in three or four years now," Williams said.

"I'd like to offer it again. It's of crucial importance. I think it should be a requirement for entering any type of career in medicine. Everybody needs to think about these things. Everybody needs to talk about these things before they happen."

As her course proposal said in 1980 -- and which is probably even more true today -- "One thing is certain as we move into the new decade. Medical ethics will never again be just for medical people. It will be shared responsibility, for ultimately each of us is largely responsible for his own health and the preparation for his own death."

140 years ago

The U.S. House of Representatives race between Democrat Burwell C. Ritter of Christian County and Unionist incumbent George H. Yeaman of Daviess County resulted in an interesting debate in Henderson in 1865, according to a lengthy report in the Henderson Reporter.

"Mr. Yeaman was listened to with silent attention throughout," the paper said, particularly the portion where he explained why he was riding through the district with a bodyguard of a dozen federal soldiers. Yeaman explained he rode to Henderson alone, and when he learned of the soldiers following him he went to their commander and was shown their orders: "His business was not to create a disturbance at the meetings throughout the district, but to prevent them, and they were ordered not to mingle in politics either in word or action," according to the Reporter. Ritter won the race, but served only one term.

75 years ago

Dixon lawyers used to have practically a monopoly on the local circuit court bench, according to a 1930 article in The Gleaner.

The story about notable men from Webster County pointed out that "Five of this judicial district's six circuit judges in the past 45 years were Dixon men. Beginning with M.C. Givens in 1885, the line of succession has been traveled by J.W. Henson, S.V. Dixon, N.B. Hunt and the incumbent, M.L. Blackwell." During the 70-year period from 1885 to 1955 the only local circuit judge not from Webster County was John L. Dorsey of Henderson.

50 years ago

Fish were jumping on Corydon's main street in 1955 -- but it was all in fun.

According to a story that appeared in The Gleaner on this date in 1955, some local wags decided to have a little fun with the fact that the widening of U.S.. 60 was taking so long. "The rains have made lakes of the excavations," the paper noted. The pranksters caught a mess of bluegill in Galbraith's lake and "on their way home they slipped down to Main Street and dumped them in the largest man-made lake on the boggy boulevard."


Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2005 HCH&GS