John P. McGovern, M.D. Award Lecture in the Medical Humanities
Drowning: The Limits of Rescue and the Ethics of Failure
Catherine Belling, PhD
Associate Professor of Medical Education
(Bioethics and Medical Humanities)
Feinberg School of Medicine
Thursday, February 24, 2022
12:00pm — 1:00pm
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In this lecture, we will think about drowning, both literally and metaphorically. Taking as
starting point the very specific clinical and ethical challenges posed by the care of traumatized
displaced migrant populations, I will draw on the representation of drowning or near-drowning
as trauma in several recent films about people attempting to migrate by sea from Africa to
Europe (and about those who aspire to help them): Fire at Sea (dir. Rose, 2016), Atlantique
(Diop, 2019), His House (Weekes, 2020), and Styx (Fischer, 2018). We will then explore the
metaphorical significance of drowning, both within these films and in their resonance for
health care, as a way to reimagine what it means to be overwhelmed. Who drowns?
Who lets another drown rather than rescue them? How might these films’ storytelling
“open up new routes,” as Lisa Diedrich puts it in her work on an ethics of failure,
when doctors and patients “risk failure, risk relation”?