The Uncomfortable Psychology of Medical Victim-Blaming

The truth, that anyone could be struck down, is too scary to bear

Ann Givens
Published in
8 min readJun 3, 2020


Illustration: Hye Jin Chung

The last time Brendan Ahern got sick, there were hundreds of people watching. The 41-year-old lawyer was in the middle of prosecuting a high-profile homicide trial, and the case was on the local news just about every night.

He was in court when he felt a pain in his abdomen so intense that he could barely stand up. His focus blurred as he tried to read his notes, and he had to sit down and catch his breath several times to make it through his closing argument. That night, Ahern’s father drove him to a nearby hospital, where surgeons removed his large intestine.

Well-wishes poured in from strangers, friends, and family in the weeks that followed — as well as a barrage of armchair medical advice: “You’ve been working way too hard!” “You are under too much stress.” Even, “I’ll bet you eat too late at night.”

Ahern knew that his condition, ulcerative colitis, was caused by a malfunctioning immune system, not by overwork or anxiety or his diet. His illness had flared up because his body had abruptly stopped responding to his medicine, as he’d always known it might. Far from neglecting his health, he had been in the best shape of his life just before his sudden decline, sleeping soundly, eating well, even running a marathon.

But he also knew, each time someone offered a theory on what he had done to cause his medical crisis, that they were afraid. The truth, that a young, vibrant father of two young children can be at the peak of his career one day and on the brink of death the next, is just too awful for most of us to carry. Finding a reason — he worked too hard, he ate poorly, the condition must run in his family — is what allows us to deny the reality, which is that this misfortune could have happened to anyone. It could happen to me, or to you.

In recent months, as Americans have watched more than 100,000 of our friends and loved ones die from the coronavirus, it’s harder and harder to ignore this brutal reality. We’ve become used to the constant barrage of news about people with Covid-19, becoming seriously ill, sometimes dying. The ones featured in news articles are often the anomalies — young…