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Medical Student Publishes Myth of Elder Suicide In Remote Alaskan Village, Rebutted By Superior.

Judging by his "A Piece of My Mind" account written for the October 18, 2000, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Shetal Shah would not seem likely ever to forget his five-week stint on a tiny, island-tip outpost in the middle of the Bering Sea. In the Arctic village of Gambell, Alaska, where 450 Siberian Yupiks (also known as Inuits) live, the medical student put his fledgling skills to the service of the tribe, under the supervision of a 20-year veteran, Dr. Michael Swenson.

So it must have incited no small amount of surprise when Dr. Swenson flatly denied his pupil's version of events in the pages of the August 22/29, 2001, edition of the very same journal.

The original essay, written in the first person by Shah, entitled "Five Miles From Tomorrow," detailed his alleged encounter with a 97-year-old elder who came to him with an unusual complaint.

"Uselessness," said the old man. He had exceeded Inuit life expectancy by 30 years in his time as a hunter, a whaler, a carver, and a teacher to several younger generations.

"When a man feels his ability to help the tribe has expired," explained the aspiring Dr. Shah, "he chants a prayer and, dressed in his finest skins, bids farewell to his family and walks over the frozen Arctic Ocean, never to return." The story concluded with sentimental farewell between the old man, the medical student, and the seasoned doctor as the smiling old man disappears forever into the cold, morning fog.

Ten months after its publication Dr. Swenson wrote a letter to the editor which made up for its tardiness by its bluntness. "There was no elder who came to us with a complaint of `uselessness' or with the intent of `saying goodbye,'" he wrote. "There has never been a Siberian Yupik tradition that an elder `bids farewell to his family...never to return.'"

Dr. Swenson's letter accuses Shah of perpetuating a myth that has never been true. "As in all Inuit cultures," he explains, the Siberian Yupiks hold their elders "in very high esteem." They are "intrinsically valued as indispensable members of the community."

As is customary, JAMA gave Shah space to defend himself - - his reply appears just beneath Dr. Swenson's letter. The point of his story, Shah argued, was to illustrate the conflict between respecting the traditions of another culture and doing his own duty to nurture life, even to its end, with the best of care.

Though admitting that the event he described did not actually happen during his stay, Shah claimed that several residents and patients had told him similar stories. He said he "condensed events to present a formalized and palatable essay that would raise the pertinent issues of medicine and cultural context in a readable format."

(Although he obviously did not feel his use of the first person to be deceptive, an editor's note revealed that JAMA had published Shah's story believing it to "represent his actual experience." According to the editor's note, Shah's cover letter stated, "The story represents an experience I the remote village of Gambell, Alaska." )

Whom to believe? By Shah's own admission, his time in the Arctic outpost is a mere five weeks against Dr. Swenson, who has been flying to this village for two decades. Therefore Dr. Swenson's insistence that there is no tradition of elder suicide would seem far more likely to be accurate.

In the end, Dr. Swenson turns the tables:

Being fiction does not necessarily detract from the value of Shah's story. As a piece of fiction, this is a nice story that offers an insightful reflection on our own cultural prejudices: when so much of a person's status depends upon performance and achievements, suicide might become a reasonable option for uselessness. But an elder faced with such despair would be far more common within our own culture than he would among the Siberian Yupik.>EN
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Title Annotation:Shetal Shah versus Dr. Michael Swenson
Publication:National Right to Life News
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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