Respecting people’s choices

As a physician, I try to exhibit concern for all patients, regardless of whether they take the COVID vaccine.



August 30, 2021 - 8:08 AM

This summer I attended the celebration of life service for Dr. Rick Holm, the original Prairie Doc who founded this newspaper column, a radio show and a television show now entering its twentieth season. He died from pancreatic cancer in March of 2020 during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and thus there was no public service at the time.

Many friends and family gathered to celebrate Rick. We sat on lawn chairs, shared tales, and sang songs in a beautiful park on a gorgeous evening. We recalled stories of him being notoriously late, knocking over wine glasses with his large hand gestures, and mistakenly eating potpourri thinking it was trail mix. Themes emerged of Rick’s amazing ability to accomplish so much in a day, his skill for active listening, and his passion for finding the best in people. 

His children shared memories of their dad, including their family bedtime prayer “Help us to be kind and honest and respect people’s choices, and help us to be better people tomorrow.” Rick crafted that prayer from the Hippocratic Oath, the promise that doctors make when they complete their training and before they begin their careers. The oath emphasizes the medical ethics principles of beneficence (to do good), and nonmaleficence (to do no harm), and the importance of patient autonomy (to respect people’s choices). 

Listening to the Holm bedtime prayer, I realized how the oath had taken on new meaning for me this past year as I observed people choosing to get vaccinated for COVID-19, or not. As a primary care physician, I know Rick would have recommended vaccination for all who are eligible. He was a proponent of preventative care and vaccines help prevent disease. Rick would have listened with kindness to the concerns of each patient. He would have explained with honest science how the vaccine works and how the risk of a severe reaction from the vaccine is greatly outweighed by the benefits of being vaccinated, such as reducing the chance of serious illness and complications from COVID-19.  

Just as my colleagues and I promise to do, Rick would have cared with beneficence for his patients that were sick with COVID-19, even if they refused the vaccine. He would have respected their choices and held their hand with no maleficence, no judgement, or condescendence. At the same time, he would have celebrated with a Snoopy dance those who choose to get vaccinated, those who choose to quit smoking, to start exercising, and to eat healthier. As we carry his legacy into another decade, we continue the message of The Prairie Doc, “Stay healthy out there, people!”

Andrew Ellsworth, M.D. is part of The Prairie Doc® team of physicians and currently practices family medicine in Brookings, South Dakota.