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Arbor, his wife, Zibby, and a few others when the question was raised: what ever happened to those nurses who were on trial for the VA poisonings? When Lindenauer recounted the story, which had continued to weigh on his mind, Zibby, as she recalls, said words to the effect of, that’s a story that should be written. Marty asked: Do you want to write it? Come with me; let me show you some things.
Zibby Oneal had been writing since high school.
She was a successful, published author, who had written fiction, mostly for children. At the time of this conversa-
tion, she had come to an impasse in her career, finding it hard to invent new fictional stories to tell. Marty Lindenauer took her a room where he had carefully stored the three large scrapbooks of materials he had collected with the intention of writing the book that had never really gotten started. Zibby, seeing the treasure trove of materials, saw the basis for a story she would have to begin. She wanted to write it. Thus began a 10-year project.
Her first challenge was deciding how to frame the story. It was not clear at first what form the book should take. Should the events be recounted as a non-fiction true story? Or would a fictionalized account serve the purpose better? She settled on telling the true story just as it had played out over the two years of investigation and trial, because as she told me, true stories are always “a lot more interest- ing.” In its form, however, it is a mystery story, more complex and thought-provoking than any fictional account one could have imagined.
Zibby, who did the writing long hand, with pen and paper, and knowing nothing about the events, was able to bring objectivity to the story. Her collaborator’s job was to help her understand the medical events, ensure accuracy and verify the facts she recorded in draft. The amount of work was enormous. The detail with which the story is told is worthy of a Robert Caro biography.
After five years they had a manuscript, but no publisher. Dr. Lindenauer joked that he has now seen how all publishers turn down your ideas for books: they simply never respond to your letters. After two years
of frustrating search, they took the manuscript to the University of Michigan Press, which accepted and published it.
Why did Marty Lindenauer still want to write this story 30 years later? My guess is that he still felt a strong sense
of responsibility for the disturbing series of events that occurred on his watch, even though he was out of the country at the time they occurred. This sense of height- ened responsibility is inherent in good surgeons. He also hoped that writing the story, putting it down on paper, objectifying it, might lead to closure for him, but it didn’t. Instead, as he told me, it led him to relive the events once again, with all their frustrations, and the feeling that justice was, and at the same time was not, served.
After the book was finished, he learned that counter- vailing interpretations of the events at the Ann Arbor VA hospital already exist. In fact, the story has already been rewritten in a documentary film you can find easily on the Internet, which tells the story in quite the opposite way, one that reflects the polarization and politicization in the community that prevailed at the time. Thus, the events might be remembered quite differently if Dr. Lindenauer and Ms. Oneal had not devoted 10 years
to collecting the facts, as best they can be known and filtered and interpreted by a first-person observer who lived through the events and by a writer that knows her job and does it well. To me, the book is much more convincing. You should read it. >>
IAnterview with Anne Hill
nne Hill is the anesthesiologist who is given credit for deducing that the patients suffering unexplained respiratory arrests at the Ann
Arbor VA Hospital in the summer of 1975 were being poisoned with an intravenous muscle relaxant, pancuronium bromide. Pancuronium (or Pavulon) is normally used in the operating room to induce long-acting muscle relaxation during major
surgical operations.
Dr. Hill was born in Lisburn, county Antrim,
Northern Ireland, and eight miles southwest of Belfast, where her father owned a shoe shop. After medical school at Queen’s University in Belfast, she trained in anesthesiology for six years, with a heavy emphasis on pharmacology and exposure to penetrating trauma, given the violence and civil unrest in N. Ireland at the time. She was sent to Ann Arbor to gain additional clinical experience, with the plan to return to Belfast and a consultancy. She was 33, petite with red hair, when she arrived. She knew no one here and recalls being refused an apartment, being told by the landlord, “we don’t rent to coeds.”
In her second year in Ann Arbor, she was working at the then new Mott Children’s Hospital, when
she accidentally met her future husband, Bruce,
a mathematician, “in an elevator.” The plan to return to Belfast was scrapped. She was assigned to the
VA Hospital as chief of anesthesia in 1973, where she worked with three nurse anesthetists. Her recollec- tion is that anesthesia at the VA was in need of some upgrading; for example, it lacked a blood gas machine, which she arranged to have donated outside the usual government procurement channels. She was familiar with the use of twitch monitors
to assess the degree of muscle paralysis from her training in N. Ireland. She does not recall how commonly it was used in the United States at the time. The arrests at the VA Hospital “didn’t make sense” to her, and she decided to attach a twitch monitor to one of the patients during an unexplained respiratory arrest. The findings were diagnostic, and the first step in solving the cause of the mysterious events had been taken.
Volume 69 • Number 2
Washtenaw County Medical Society BULLETIN
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