The Front Lines

Imagine you are a surgeon who mends broken bones. Imagine you work with power tools--saws and drills--that send a fine mist of blood into the air. So much that blood forms a film on your face, and soaks right through your surgical gown. Imagine you even breathe particles of blood through your surgical mask. Then imagine you've just heard that human blood carries the deadly AIDS virus. Now you understand how an orthopedic surgeon might feel today. Dr. Lorraine Day used to be chief of orthopedic surgery at San Francisco General Hospital. When the AIDS epidemic first broke out, Dr. Day went to the infectious-disease experts and asked about the risks to health care workers. Don't worry, she was told. Just wear the normal masks and gloves, and you'll be fine. Then news came that some health care workers were contracting AIDS from needle pricks and scalpel cuts. Dr. Day went to the experts again. Nothing to worry about, they said, and patted her on the back. Then a nurse in Dr. Day's own hospital got AIDS from a needle stick. The doctor was stunned. She decided she could no longer trust the experts to square with her. It was time to do her own research on AIDS. Instantly, Dr. Day became a controversial figure. First, she spoke out for AIDS testing for all patients, so doctors would know what they're dealing with. (Currently, it's the only blood test doctors can't do without the patient's written permission.) Then Dr. Day pushed for research on breathing AIDS-contaminated sprays. One experiment has found that the AIDS virus does travel through the air in sprays, and can infect human tissue. For all this, Dr. Day has been castigated as a homophobe and scare-monger. Yet many of her recommendations are now becoming mainstream. For example, she was laughed at when she began wearing heavy protective garb and a helmet into the operating room. The press mocked her and called it a "space suit." But today surgeons around the country are wearing the suits: high rubber boots, a full-length waterproof apron, extra gloves, sleeve protectors. Wrap-around face shields have become mandatory. The Dr. Days of this country literally put their lives on the line in the war against disease. Daily they are exposed to life-threatening illnesses. Yet, while our government has spent billions trying to develop a treatment for AIDS, it has not spent one cent protecting health care workers. Just developing gloves strong enough to withstand needle pricks would reduce the risk by 90 percent. Why do we see this great crusade for cures--which will only allow homosexuals and drug abusers to continue their life style--while we ignore another group of people equally at risk? The reason is sad but obvious: as a society we value tolerance above all else--even above the lives of our nurses and doctors. And if anyone says otherwise, they're called bigots. Well, call me whatever you like. I say take some of the money we devote to AIDS and spend it on health care workers. We don't send fire fighters into burning buildings dressed in shirts and ties. And we shouldn't send health care workers into operating rooms without the very best protective equipment possible. They deserve at least as much support as the AIDS patients they are helping.


Chuck Colson


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