Doctor attends a college ethics seminar as a student—but suspects her professor may have a deadly medical condition

September 13, 2017 7:43 pm Last Updated: October 20, 2017 6:13 pm

A doctor’s work is never done. That’s one lesson Dr. Iris Jaffe, a cardiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, has learned in her years on the job.

“When you are a physician, even when you are not in the hospital, you carry that with you wherever you go,” she explained to WBZ.

“So you notice things outside because they are things you are trained to look for.”

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But it also raises an ethical dilemma: when is it appropriate for a doctor to give unsolicited medical advice?

That’s the situation Dr. Jaffe found herself in when she noticed a potentially deadly condition.

Jaffe attended a women’s leadership course at Bentley University over the summer. One of the lectures was an ethics seminar taught by a professor named Jill Brown.

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At the beginning of the lecture, Prof. Brown entered on crutches—and explained to her class that she had just undergone foot surgery.

Jaffe sat through the class from the third row, but as she watched the professor, she noticed some strange things about her condition that the foot surgery didn’t explain.

For one, Brown seemed to be out of breath after only a few sentences, even though she was sitting through most of the lecture.

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Even more concerning, she could also see that her leg was abnormally swollen—and the veins in her neck were throbbing.

Jaffe recognized the symptoms, and in her head made a frightening diagnosis: Pulmonary embolism, a potentially fatal condition involving a blood clot in the lung.

Dr. Jaffe had seen this condition plenty of times at work and had seen firsthand how deadly it could be.

But she wasn’t at work, and the doctor questioned if and how she should approach this difficult subject with a stranger.

“Now I’m sitting in the class and thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’” Jaffe told the Boston Globe. “I’m not her physician. I just noticed these things.”

“Maybe she has some reasons for all of this. Who am I? I’m somebody in her class. Should I say something? Maybe it’s none of my business.”

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“But it was also a diagnosis that could be fatal,” she told WBZ.

So Jaffe decided that any social discomfort was worth it if it meant saving the woman’s life.

According to the Boston Globe, Jaffe approached her professor during break and said that she had an “ethical dilemma.” Thinking this was class-related, Brown listened, but she was shocked with what Jaffe told her.

“I’m a physician, but I’m not your physician, and I know nothing about your medical history,” Jaffe recalled saying.

“But I’m concerned you have a blood clot in your lungs and you need to be seen right away.”

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Brown didn’t understand. She assumed she was tired because she was on crutches, and she hadn’t even noticed any of the other symptoms.

But Jaffe stressed how dangerous the condition was, even going as far as offering to drive her to the hospital right then. But Brown was headed out of town and declined.

The two parted ways. But in the days that followed, Jaffe couldn’t get it out of her head. Had the woman gotten checked out? Would she be okay?

She decided to send the professor an email to check in—but instead, she found out that Brown had already emailed her.

According to the Boston Globe, she could tell immediately from the subject line what had happened.

“Thank you for saving my life . . . really!”

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Prof. Brown had gone to the hospital after all—and it was exactly what Dr. Jaffe feared—she had multiple blood clots, including one in her leg and several in her lungs.

She knew immediately that her student’s intervention had saved her life, and she became emotional thinking about what might have happened.

“When I got to the ER, multiple doctors told me that I am lucky,” she told WBZ.

“I am lucky to be alive.”

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“The doctors kept telling me, ‘That woman probably saved your life,’ because I would have just ignored my symptoms, because I thought they were normal after surgery,” she explained to the Boston Globe.

“I’ll be indebted to you forever,” she told Jaffe in the email.

Still, she felt like she needed to do more. “How do you thank someone for saving your life?” she asked the Boston Globe.

In the end, she decided it would be fitting to make a donation to the American Heart Association in Jaffe’s name.

But for Jaffe, it was all in a day’s work—she’s just glad she made the right call and spoke up.

“Thank God she’s still alive,” she told the Boston Globe.