Episode: Second Sight
A young psychic named Agnes is seen flipping tarot cards as her hand trembles. Her co-worker, another psychic, notices that Agnes is in a strange mood. When she inquires about it, Agnes doesn’t divulge any information. When the co-worker leaves, Agnes flips over a card that reveals that her fate is death. The scene passes and it is revealed that Agnes has disappeared. The investigative team is called in. We will use this summary to analyze the ethical dilemmas and various representations, accurate and inaccurate, of Huntington’s disease.
During the interviews, one of the neighbors recalls seeing her fall down the stairs. He said he called a medic to assist her. She repeatedly told him and the hospital doctor how clumsy she is. When the doctor noticed her arm shaking, he tried to investigate, but she refused. Both the neighbor and the doctor believed someone was abusing her. Agnes left in a hurry from the hospital to avoid the doctor’s questioning.
The doctor ordered a neurology exam, but Agnes never showed up. The neurologist reviewed her CT scan and noted enlarged caudate nuclei. The doctor believes she has Huntington’s. The investigator interviewing the doctor doesn’t understand. The doctor clarifies by saying that Huntington’s is a “hereditary wasting disease, destroys your ability to think and move.” The investigator asks if it is fatal and the doctor replies with “always.”
Later, when her co-psychic was informed of the illness, she understands it as the “dark cloud around her.” The investigator states that she has to consider suicide as a reason for her disappearance since she has a terminal illness. The physic believes Agnes did not commit suicide as suicidal thoughts create a “strong energy” that the psychic would have noticed.
The psychic asks if it is a possibility that Agnes didn’t know she had it, especially since she missed the doctor’s appointment. However, the investigator mentions the fact that Huntington’s is hereditary and that Agnes may have recognized it in herself based upon observations of another symptomatic individual.
“Her grandmother,” the psychic realizes. She explains that Agnes told her about a vision she had after falling down the stairs. Agnes noted that there was a white bird sitting on a wagon wheel and she knew that bird was her grandmother. Agnes adored her grandmother and witnessed the bird struggling to get away because her wing was broken. The bird was trapped and alone. Agnes knew there was nothing she could do to help.
The psychic explains to the investigator that a white bird means sorrow.
Later on, the investigators identify that Agnes’ father staged her abduction. The investigator tells him that Agnes has Huntington’s. The father was unaware. He agrees to bring his daughter to them so the investigators can ensure her safety.
The investigator tells Agnes that her father knows about the diagnosis. Stunned and angry, Agnes asks him if he has ever watched anyone die of Huntington’s disease.
Agnes: Their arms and legs, they jerk around like they’re trapped and trying to get away. No talking, no laughing and it takes a really long time. When I fell down the stairs I knew it; I couldn’t do this on my own. My family will stay with me. Who else would do that?
Investigator: No one.
The investigators allow her to leave with her family and drops all charges against her father.
This episode of Without a Trace follows a young woman’s disappearance shortly after realizing she had inherited the mutant Huntingtin gene. While the show does an effective job of explaining the disease verbally without ever showing a symptomatic person, it does bring up various ethical dilemmas.
Agnes’ doctor is concerned. He believes that someone is injuring her as she has multiple hairline fractures and bruises. However, Agnes refuses to share the true reason for her many injuries. At this point, the doctor has noticed a tremor in her hand and orders a neurological exam, to which she never shows up. Without her permission, the neurologist examines her scans to discover the true reason for all her mishap: Huntington’s disease. Usually, consent is required in the testing of Huntington’s disease, but due to the unusual circumstances of the criminal investigation, this action might be considered justifiable.
Another ethical issue arises when the investigator tries to convince Agnes’ father to bring Agnes to them. In order to convince him, the investigator reveals that his daughter has Huntington’s disease. This action is not fair to Agnes. HD is a devastating family disease and individuals diagnosed with the illness should have an opportunity to share their gene status with their family in a safe and secure environment. However, in this criminal investigation, Agnes is stripped of that ability and is horrified to realize what the investigator has done.
Similar to most people, the investigator had never heard of Huntington’s disease until this specific investigation. He is inclined to arrest Agnes’ father and family members complicit in the staged abduction. After Agnes explains that her family members are the only ones who will care for her, he decides to drop charges and let Agnes leave with her family. Despite the family’s criminal history, the investigator decides that it would be morally wrong to take away Agnes’ family.
Finally, the co-psychic revealed that Agnes’ grandmother had the disease. It is clear from the episode that Agnes’ father does not have the disease. Huntington’s disease does not skip generations, so it is safe to assume that Agnes’ mother had the disease as well.
Without a Trace maintains accuracy while staying true to its dramatic nature. Ethical questions arise throughout the episode. Should a doctor run a neurology exam without a patient’s permission? Did the investigator have the right to share Agnes’ diagnosis with her father in order to ensure her safety? Was it right to drop the criminal charges against the family so they could care for Agnes? The answers to these questions are hard to come by, but the discussion around these issues is what is continually important.