Rest in Peace Jean S., or how HIPAA died in an airport

This might be a difficult read for some. Sorry.

As many of you know, I had a bit of a delay, five hours or so, getting from Miami to Chicago last week. We were shuffled off a plane for mechanical problems around midnight eastern. Everyone was tired. The airport was closed. There were bathrooms (thank goodness!) and water fountains, but that’s it. About 1 a.m. we were getting restless. It was then the airline announced that they had to bring another crew in, and it would be a while.

The whole time this plane full of families, college kids, etc., was jostling around the airport gate to get comfortable one man, a research doctor from Chicago, was making phone call after phone call to manage the removal of the brain of Jean S.

We all heard him spell her name repeatedly. We watched as he put the woman’s husband on speaker phone so that his wife could witness the donation properly. We heard her husband’s quavering voice. We heard the doctor detail to the funeral home how to remove the brain and how to store it. We all now know the exact timeline necessary for viable research.

At one point, for one very small moment, we did hear the doctor tell Mr. S. “God bless” and that a donation decision like this was very important to the research of Parkinson’s disease. That’s what Jean S. had when she died.

Yes, it is a very noble thing to arrange such a donation. But can you imagine how mortified this loved one might be to know that the entire population of the plane knew every detail? There were a couple of groups of college students on the plane. Their eyes were pretty wide by the time I mentioned to Mr. Doctor that yes, his work was noble, but I felt certain the law expected him to be more discreet. Could he please make his calls more privately?

“I’m tired,” he snarled.

Yes, I chose the world snarled because it fits. I didn’t even reply. Instead, I gave him The Look. Later, he did walk away from the crowd when he made another call.

Of course the whole incident put my own mortality up close and personal for a while. I don’t actually have anything (at least as far as I know they aren’t researching Stubborn Broad Syndrome), but if I were to go, would I be willing to donate my body to science? I’m already listed as an organ donor. Would I know that I had body parts being discussed in an airport at midnight?

I felt a little crummy about raining on the doctor’s parade. And of course, I prayed for dear Jean S.

What would you have done?


  1. You did the right thing. I might have left HIPPA out of it; respect for the dead and their loved ones should be sufficient.

    I lost a niece recently. It was sudden and dramatic. Hearing strangers discuss it as if it were just a bit of news was painful, even though they said nothing disrespectful. The airport business would have been distressing.

  2. I’m a HIPAA Privacy Officer at the federal level, have been for over six years, and can quote the Rules chapter and verse. In this case, I think you did the wrong thing, and should not have fussed at or said anything critical to the doc.

    If you overheard the conversation, perhaps you missed the part where the doc made it known to the folks on the other end of the line where he was, what he was doing, etc. — they had the opportunity to object, and if they did not do so, then the doc was free to go forward with the conversation. Technically, what you overheard was called an incidental disclosure, and it is not “against the Rules.”

    Further, patient SAFETY is more important than patient privacy — and ensuring that the funderal home had the correct deceased person, even if the name had to be spelled several times, is far more important than worrying about who hears it all.

    And now you sit here in a rather sanctimonious blog of anonymity and fuss about this doc.

    Shame on you.

    That this doc was indiscreet is not in question; that he was taking great pains and great care to ensure the proper handling of the deceased — even though he was tired and stuck on a plane — is commendable.

    Has it occurred to you that perhaps this was the only time that the conversation could take place — that because of circumstances at the other end of the line, the information had to be provided right then? Has it occurred to you that maybe the doc could not leave the aircraft, and couldn’t go sit in the bathroom, and basically had few if any choices in the matter?

    You DON’T KNOW all the circumstances, you only know the one side of the conversation that you insisted on listening to (you couldn’t put on some headphones, strike up a conversation about something else with someone else???).

    This poor doc will probably never try to help someone at his own inconvenience again.

    You feel crummy? GOOD. You *should* feel crummy. That’s your conscience telling you that you did the wrong thing.

  3. Tinkerbell says:

    Kathryn, my deepest sympathies on the loss of your niece.

    Lane, has the information found in the link below been superceded by more recent policy regarding incidental and accidental disclosure?

  4. Randy in Richmond says:

    Lane H
    I resent being called anonymous. You miss the point. It’s not what the Doctor did but where and how he did it. All C did was ask that he make his calls more privately, which he subsequently did. This isn’t a medical or a privacy issue-it’s a humane issue.

  5. Sanctimonious?

    He wasn’t stuck on a plane – he was stuck in an airport. He walked away for privacy after I said something.

    You’ve got issues, huh? Or maybe you’re just a familiar face with a defensive instinct that shows up when she, as a doctor in research, feels threatened.

  6. I don’t know if I would have taken C’s course and told him to be quiet or move away, but Lane, do us all a favor and uncover your identity since you know how frustrating it can be to talk to someone anonymous.

    Anyhow, Cindy’s name is clearly displayed, the about me section of her blog talks about where she lives.

    I have a feeling we wouldn’t be surprised who ye were.