Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Tale of the Tattooed Penis

This is how one unethical professional can erode the trust of an entire profession:

There is a disturbing gag in an episode of “The Simpsons,” in which Moe, the homely bartender, is undergoing plastic surgery to be more attractive. “Look at the mug on this guy!” says a nurse. “You should see his genitals,” the surgeon replies. “Would you like to see his genitals?” (The conversation stops when Moe announces that he is still conscious.) This is a nightmare scenario for anyone who has undergone or will undergo surgery, but all but the most paranoid among us have been willing to trust that medical professionals would never take advantage of our unconscious state to ridicule, molest or humiliate us.

Then comes the AP story about Mayo clinic surgeon Dr. Adam Hansen, who found a patient’s penis so amusing that he took a photograph of it as he was preparing to operate on the patient’s gallbladder. Who knows what Dr. Hansen was going to do with the photo—keep it in his wallet, put it in a scrapbook…maybe use it in his Christmas card. The penis was certainly noteworthy, having the words “HOT ROD” tattooed on it. But to say this was an epic violation of privacy and trust is an understatement.

So far, Dr. Hanson has neither been prosecuted nor disciplined, apparently on the grounds that the patient suffered “no harm.” The rest of us, however…or at least those of us who have, uh, distinctive physical characteristics, have been harmed. Our trust is damaged, and we will always wonder—what is the surgeon doing to us while we are awaiting surgery? How do we know that our birthmarks, sixth toes and third nipples aren’t going to be part of a YouTube video? Similarly, the medical profession’s integrity is compromised by Hanson’s actions. This was very harmful conduct, even though no physical injury was involved.

If no disciplinary action comes from the medical profession, we can only conclude that the ethical implications of the illicit photograph either are not recognized by the profession, or not taken sufficiently seriously. The other possibility—that the surgeons on the disciplinary board have scrapbooks of their own, is too horrible to contemplate.

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