This past week many of us met a Utah nurse for the first time. Alex Wubbels works at the burn unit of the University of Utah Hospital. On July 26 Wubbels was handcuffed and detained by a Salt Lake City police detective after she refused to draw an unconscious patient’s blood on the grounds that it violated the patient’s privacy rights. The officer did not have a court order for the blood, nor had the patient given permission for the blood to be drawn and the patient was not under arrest. Any of those three conditions would have allowed Wubbels to draw the patient’s blood for the officer, however without them she refused. As a result Wubbels was handcuffed and placed in a police cruiser. Shortly afterwards Wubbels was released and no charges were laid.
This story came to light in the past week after Wubbels obtained body camera video of the incident and posted it on social media.
Wubbels’ actions are an example of a front line professional taking responsibility for her “Duty to Protect” a patient. In the absence of a family member or a lawyer. She recognized it was her responsibility to act as the patient’s advocate and protector. Through her efforts the unconscious patient’s right to privacy in the form of providing a blood sample to the Salt Lake City Police was preserved. Most professions have the concept of “the public good” within their mandate. The most explicit example would be the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians, but other professions such as lawyers or teachers have similar ethical requirements to protect their clients and the general public. In media this idea is romanticized with lawyers, teachers, medical professionals shown working to right wrongs and advance the public good (Or not depending on the plot of the story). In a movie or a TV show it looks easy to stand up and defend the rights of the accused or fight for the life of a dying patient. How many of us would refuse the officer’s orders if placed in a similar circumstance?
All Librarians have a similar duty to respect and protect their patrons. But what does that mean? Our commodity of exchange is information. Different types of information get treated in many different ways depending on the context. Thus a librarian providing a patron with information on white nationalists might question a patron on why they want the information and direct them to sources they can use but also provide information discussing the logical fallacies and impact done by these groups. If that patron also asks for information on how to create a 3D printed handgun or other type of weapon the librarian might refuse to provide the information or inform the police that a patron with possible ties to right wing nationalist groups appears to be trying to access unlicensed handguns. (FYI – this blog is written in Canada where such weapons are illegal). That could result in a visit by the police to the patron’s home and possibly further investigation if it was deemed necessary.
A second example might be a youth attempting to access information about being transgendered, or one of the other other categories which are grouped under LBGTQ issues. A young person might honestly be unsure about their gender or sexual identity and not be able to get answers for the questions they need at home. They might have parents who who don’t or can’t discuss these topics or who are phobic. They might attend a school which doesn’t provide adequate gender and sex education for religious or political reasons. Some librarians might decide that if the child is asking about these issues it is something which the parents should know about and contact them resulting in a discussion between the youth and his/her parents, or possibly an argument. In some cases gay and transgendered youth have been kicked out of their parents’ home because of their developing identity. Wubbels was given a choice about how she should treat her patient although she had never met that person and she knew very little about the circumstances which brought him to the Hospital. Librarians’ face similar dilemmas when we are confronted by challenging issues and our patrons.
Trust is built on behaviour. We as a profession are trusted because we have shown ourselves to be able to differentiate the threads of useful information which our patrons need. Saying that one behaviour is right in one circumstance but wrong in another might sound contradictory but it feeds back to our duty to the librarian’s “Duty to Protect” and our capacity to work critically with information and our patrons. When a patron asks a question it isn’t simply our job to find an answer it is our responsibility help the patron understand the full depth and breadth of the question and then determine the answer which best meets their needs. Our relationship with our patrons and our Duty to them rests on a much stronger foundation than the one Wubbels had to work from but it can still place us in difficult situations.
Wubbels didn’t know if she was refusing to provide an officer with the data he might need on a dangerous killer or a simple bystander to an accident. However, despite that she stood by her principles and her training.