Hazel McHaffie

ethical questions

Eighteen days of action; far more than eighteen difficult questions

In this record-breaking summer with its long hot days and short warm nights it’s hard to imagine being trapped in a dark cave inside a mountain for days, weeks on end, isn’t it? But as we know, twelve lads – aged between 11 and 16 – and their 25-year-old football coach have endured exactly that in Thailand. Thai children are warned by their grandparents about this ‘mountain that swallows people’ and doesn’t give them back; this must have felt like their worst nightmares coming true.

After nine endless days, there was worldwide rejoicing when that headlight fell on the boys, thin but all still alive. However, the rejoicing was short-lived. The authorities now faced a huge dilemma: how to get them out? They were perched on a rocky shelf 2.5 miles inside a pitch-black tortuous labyrinth of jagged passageways narrowing to just 15 inches in places, completely submerged in parts. Divers had to remove their breathing apparatus to squeeze through. The tunnel was filled with cold muddy water and the journey to reach them took an experienced person anything up to 6-7 hours to negotiate.

Hundreds of experts – elite squads from around the globe – collaborated to find a way to extricate them. The clock was against them. The tunnel needed to be partially drained, but their best efforts only achieved a fall of 1cm an hour, and there was an imminent risk of torrential monsoon rains reversing the process, submerging even the level where the boys were sitting. If they missed this small window of opportunity, it could be January before further rescue attempts that way could be attempted. Imagine! Being stuck inside a mountain for another six months!

The pressure was indeed on. But contingency plans had to be made for failure this time too. Experts laid conduits and cables against that eventuality to enable them to get provisions and communication to the trapped boys and their coach indefinitely. Communication was a major concern. Acoustics in the cavernous rocky space coupled with the rushing water made miscommunication highly likely, a perilous complication in such a fraught situation.

Some of the lads couldn’t even swim; none could dive. Experts gave them crash-courses in scuba diving, but they were already weakened by malnutrition and oxygen deprivation, possibly also suffering a potentially deadly lung disease caused by the fungi harboured in caves. With so many rescuers in the tunnel, so much activity, the air quality plummeted.

Then came devastating news: an experienced former navy SEAL volunteer tragically died in the exercise, from lack of air. He was only 38 years of age. If someone of his calibre could …

From above ground other rescuers furiously drilled holes in a desperate search for a way into the cave from above, without success, but flooding the fields of nearby farmers, ruining their crops. Others tried to expand the tunnels to make access easier. Buddhist monks kept vigil. Frightened parents camped nearby, willing the rescue attempt to succeed.

Then on Sunday the first attempt to extricate the boys was made. The world held its breath.

Four of the eleven were selected. Four were safety escorted out. Did that make it all worthwhile? Nine people were still trapped in there, facing another night deep inside the mountain.

Monday saw four more emerging, whisked off to hospital. And now? Five lives remained perilously perched on a rock in grave danger for another day and night.

Then on Tuesday came the news: all five were out. And last … a few hours later … the army doctor and three Navy Seals who’d been supporting the boys during their ordeal emerged – interestingly enough to no fanfare. I, like everyone else, let out my breath at last. And saluted those extraordinary people who had pulled off this daring and unprecedented rescue.

Why am I recounting this tale on my blog? Because it’s a clear illustration of ethical dilemmas in real life. Hard questions.

A few to kick-start thinking:
* Just how far should countries go in their efforts in such circumstances?
* What other services are being curtailed to free up this level of resources – both man-power and money?
* Who is being deprived as a consequence?
* Can hope of success against such odds justify the death of a young diver?
* Should other lives be put at risk?
* How do you weigh up the value of one life against another?
* What of the responsibility these volunteers have to their own families, their own teenage sons?
* How do you choose which boys to save first?
* Who should make that choice?
* How do organisations/individuals achieve an appropriate balance between adventure and safety where minors are concerned?
* Who should foot the bill for this mammoth rescue attempt?
* Are these boys more worthy of being saved than the hundreds of youngsters caught up say, in the floods in Japan, the Syrian crisis, starving in North Korea?
* What part does/should publicity and acclaim play in these situations?
I leave you to add your own dilemmas. You can see how my mind works. I sit on a permanent question-mark!

And of course, your opinion might depend on where you stand.
What if my own teenage grandson had been one of those trapped in the caves?
What if my husband, my son, was one of those going into the tunnel?
What if someone I love suffers because resources are deployed on this emergency rather than regular services?

How would I feel then?


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The Revenant

Even when I make a conscious effort to switch off my brain and just relax, life somehow has a habit of steering me back into work-mode!

I’m at the stage of being utterly absorbed in the lives of my fictional characters (no, I do not want another cup of coffee/lunch/a break/to pack up for the night!! … please do not ring/call/interrupt/challenge/speak to me in any way or by any means until I emerge from my fictional world and readjust to yours!) and at the end of a long writing stint I feel pretty zapped. I know my subconscious can be relied on to work on issues during sleep and I can safely leave it to do so, but sometimes I crave a real switched-off complete break. That was the case one night this week so I decided to watch a DVD I bought many moons ago: The Revenant. (Just in case this word has escaped your personal lexicon, it means a person who has returned, especially supposedly from the dead.)

It’s a raw, brutal, stunning film. (Click on the picture for the official trailer.)

‘Everything screams primal in “The Revenant” – the lethal force of a wild animal, the savagery of man against man, the sustaining power of revenge, and the beauty of vast, snowbound lands seemingly untouched since the Creation.’ (Wall Street Journal)

It won three Golden Globes and considerable acclaim from critics and the public alike. Loosely (I use the word advisedly) based on a true story, and a work of fiction, about the main protagonist, a legendary explorer on a quest for survival and justice, it’s not an authentic documentary of a hero’s life, but I wasn’t looking for verifiable reality or hard facts, just some escape. A subject, then, far removed from my usual interests, so it should fit the bill perfectly. Settle down in a comfy chair, pick up the knitting, here goes …

A brief synopsis of the story line first. While exploring the uncharted wilderness of the Rocky mountains in 1823, frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) sustains life-threatening injuries from a brutal grizzly bear attack. A treacherous member of his hunting team (Tom Hardy) kills Glass’ young half-Pawnee son (Forrest Goodluck) and leaves Glass himself for dead. His beloved native American wife has also been murdered, and, grief-stricken, fuelled by vengeance, the legendary fur trapper treks through the snowy terrain to track down the man who betrayed him. (The real Hugh Glass really did crawl to safety for 200 miles over 6 weeks.)

Some reviewers have been pretty sniffy about the effects but I, in my naivety, was lost in admiration of the stupendous cinematography. And how the actors coped in the deep snow and freezing glacial rivers – yes, really in I can’t begin to understand. But, I can vouch for the authenticity of the setting; it was mostly filmed in the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia where we were recently. The filmmakers have captured the essence of Glass’ struggles, and the sheer grit needed to survive in this vast uncharted terrain, incredibly well. And the footage of him climbing inside the still-steaming carcass of a newly-dead eviserated horse for warmth, or being driven off the edge of a cliff, or being ripped and shaken by a grizzly, or guzzling raw buffalo liver, vividly convey the desperation that drove such pioneers, and the sheer forces of nature they faced.

So, a completely different scenario from my usual medical ethics work, huh? You’d think. But you’d be wrong. As was I!

Glass sees one of the trappers attempting to kill his beloved son. Would he be justified in killing the attacker if that would save the boy’s life?

When Glass is severely injured in the brutal grizzly bear attack, the trappers consider leaving the dying man behind to save their own lives. Would this be morally defensible?

Some of the men feel it would be a humane thing to shoot Glass to put him out of his suffering after the bear attack. Would it be ethically right to do so?

Glass can’t speak but his eyes are open. One of the trappers tells him to blink if he wants to die. Glass stares back wide-eyed for ages but eventually blinks. Would this be deemed informed consent?

The chap deputed to actually shoot to kill, says someone should put a rag over the dying Glass’ eyes; he can’t do the deed looking into the face of a man he knows. What does this say about mercy killing?

When Glass eventually catches up with his son’s killer, a bloody fight ensues, but in the end Glass leaves vengeance to God, as one of the indigenous Indians taught him. Does this translate to today’s issues?

Just a few challenges to give you a flavour. But hey, it’s an absorbing film anyway. Enjoy!



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