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Jay Greeson

It's easy to sympathize with Mary Jane, the anonymous new mom that columnist David Cook eloquently introduced us to in the newspaper Wednesday, and her angst in a tender and emotional moment of having her baby treated with a non-threatening eye ointment that she and her husband did not want.

This is the needle in the haystack of modern policy dilemma; the example that makes us question the rule.

The example, however, does not change the rule, and this rule is a state law. A state law that makes it a do-or-leave proposition for Erlanger hospital. A state law that as written, not unlike child seats and drinking ages, offers no wiggle room or out clauses.

If you are outraged, be outraged at the law and not the medical people who are put in the place of enforcing it, or the institution that is abiding by it.

"State lawmakers need to clarify the situation," said Dr. David Barker, a partner with OBGYN Center of Excellence downtown and a regular in Erlanger delivery rooms. "Nurses need to be free to deliver quality health care and not be law enforcement agents."

Maybe there were waivers made available before. Maybe there are other places that see a gray area in the black-and-white distinction of the law. Maybe the timing and semantics of the rare appearance of security guards in the delivery room seem over the top.

But maybe does not translate into legal vernacular.

State law instructs hospitals to apply the ointment, and we feel certain that fact is part of the education available to every mother and father who grace the blessed doors of Erlanger's delivery rooms.

Have we gotten to the place in our society that we are up in arms for people and companies for following the law?

If you are on Mary Jane's side, and that's your right, take your angst to Nashville and, as Dr. Barker said accurately, have the law examined. Or take your business to another hospital that would consider allowing you to sign a waiver to forgo state law and run the risk of your child developing blindness.

But leave Erlanger and the staff and those who are doing the Lord's work of delivering babies and saving lives and — goodness forbid — following the law, alone. Some of the other health care systems across the state apparently offer a waiver for parents to sign to skip the antibiotic ointment, but Erlanger in January made following the letter of state law a priority.

"Nothing changed with our policy in January," Erlanger spokeswoman Pat Charles said Wednesday. "When we learned that a baby did not get the ointment, we realized the nursing staff needed to clearly understand that administering the ointment is the law and cannot be refused. That if a baby did not receive the ointment, our staff can be held criminally liable.

"So we inserted the actual state statute into our existing policy, with more detailed protocol for staff to follow. That is what happened in January."

Certainly, the Mary Jane scenario serves as the exception that makes you wonder about the law. But all too often in today's society, that exception is found at the other end of a lawsuit.

A hospital ignoring a state law and choosing to allow a person to decide if a state-mandated medicinal application is optional screams of potential civil lawsuit.

What if there was a single parent who signed and the other parent sued? What if one parent signed, the parents later divorce and a lawsuit comes after the fact? And maybe a hospital would be in the right in the public perception or the spirit of the moment, but it could cost millions in attorney fees to prevent the possibility of paying tens of millions to the parents of a blind child suing the hospital.

Sadly, in a society that is too litigious, far too many decisions have to be made with the magnifying glass of legalese and the fine-tooth comb of precaution.

Every organization — be it a Dixie Youth baseball league to the NCAA to Erlanger to you name it — has to galvanize itself with the safeguards against lawsuits. Be it concussion seminars or nitpicking recruiting rules or no-exception ointment treatment, the emotional scenario must be dismissed so the lawsuits cannot have their genesis.

It's the prevention of a lawsuit as much as the prevention of blindness that tied Erlanger's hands when Mary Jane's bundle of joy arrived.

And for that, blame the law, not the hands that delivered the baby.

Jay Greeson's column will appear on Page A2 on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. His sports columns are scheduled for Tuesdays and Fridays. You can read his online column the "5-at-10" Monday through Friday at timesfreepress.com after 10 a.m. Contact him at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com and follow him on Twitter at @jgreesontfp.

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