This week’s This American Life dispenses with preamble to launch straight into the story of how a 26-year-old college student ended up being shot in the chest in his hospital room in Houston by two off-duty police officers moonlighting as security guards.
A New York Times special report by Elisabeth Rosenthal provides the basis for this story, and I imagine that a number of This American Life listeners will have read it before hearing this episode. This American Life’s take, however, is not just an audio transcription of the story that appeared in print. Ira Glass interviews Alan Pean, the student who was shot, and coaxes out reflections on the incident that didn’t appear in the Times coverage. Glass also speaks with Rosenthal, whose grasp of the interlocking commercial, legal, scientific, ethical, and other pressures bearing down on American health-care institutions is as clear on radio as it is in her writing.
Pean had previously suffered delusions possibly associated with bipolar disorder, but had gone six years without an incident. Last August, he experienced a prolonged spell of mental disassociation. His paranoid delusions left him believing that he was a Barack Obama impersonator or a robot being pursued by assassins. He drove to St. Joseph Medical Center in Houston seeking help.
Kept overnight for monitoring, Pean was behaving erratically. He danced naked in his room, drifted into the hall, and refused to have his gown fastened. Following protocol, a nurse called security. In Pean’s room, an altercation between Pean and the two security officers—the details of which are disputed—took place. The police officers deployed a Taser on him, shot him in the chest millimeters from his heart, and then handcuffed him.
This episode is unusual in that it devotes the bulk of the program—more than 40 minutes—to Pean’s story. Typically, a lead story on This American Life is 20 or 30 minutes at most, and episodes have as many as five acts. This episode has just two acts. The sustained focus on one story recalls the New Yorker’s old practice of devoting an entire issue to a single reported article.
The decision to focus on Pean pays off. Despite the merits of the episode’s second act—which features Slate founder Michael Kinsley speaking wittily and candidly about his experience with Parkinson’s, including a stint of brain surgery performed while he was conscious—This American Life could have extended the hospital-shooting story into a full episode, and I wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. The series of events that culminated with Kean lying on a hospital room floor with a bullet in his chest raises so many pressing issues that the story demands further commentary.
What are these issues? Police violence against black men is one: Pean says he believes the shooting would not have happened were he white. Another issue concerns safety practices in hospitals. Half of all hospitals now allow guns, according to a national survey in 2014—a figure more than double estimates from studies in 2011. The increase in weaponry has happened in part because hospitals are becoming more common settings for violent incidents. From 2012 to 2014 health care institutions reported a 40 percent increase in violent crime, mostly directed at hospital staff, Rosenthal reports. Some of this rise in violence involves a circular causal loop, with more guns leading to more violent incidents: 23 percent of shootings in emergency rooms between 2000 and 2011 involved someone grabbing a security officer’s gun.
One major problem with how hospitals have responded to this spike in violence is that many gun-wielding security officers, including many police officers contracted by hospitals for security jobs, are not adequately trained to meet the special demands of a health-care setting. Hospital workers have practice in dealing with aggressive patients in nonviolent ways. Not all police officers are able to de-escalate situations so smoothly. Rosenthal’s reporting found that training protocols for armed hospital security officers—where such protocols even exist—are scattershot and locally variable. “As I called around to different hospitals, there was no pattern” to training schemes, she tells Ira Glass.
I have complained before about collaborations between This American Life and other news outlets that simply rehearse a story that has already been told in print, rather than adding new material or new angles. Rosenthal, in a supplement to her Times story, addresses this concern about dual publication. She writes: “We felt confident that the more issue-oriented tone of a Times special report and the more personal/emotional tone of a “This American Life” podcast would be complementary rather than compete for readers’ attention.” The collaboration here succeeds, largely because of the additional interviews conducted by Glass. It’s worth noting, though, that while the episode dives into the “personal/emotional” consequences of Pean’s breakdown and near-death experience, it doesn’t skirt the policy issues involved either. Its intelligent handling of shifts in hospital-security practices helps listeners grasp the national implications of Pean’s story.
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