When Your Patient Is A Mass Murderer

Robert Bowers was still screaming that he wanted to kill Jews when he entered Allegheny General Hospital with multiple gunshot wounds. This after he shot and killed 11 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. “He’s taken into my hospital, and he’s shouting, ‘I want to kill all the Jews,’ and the first people who are taking care of him are Jewish,” Jeffery Cohen, president of Allegheny General Hospital, told Action News 4. “Well, ain’t that a kick in the pants.” One of those Jewish first responders was Ari Mahler, the son of a rabbi and a trauma nurse. He chronicled his encounter with Bowers on a recent Facebook post: [M]y care is given through kindness, my actions are measured with empathy, and regardless of the person you may be when you’re not in my care, each breath you take is more beautiful than the last when you’re lying on my stretcher. This was the same Robert Bowers that just committed mass homicide. The Robert Bowers who instilled panic in my heart, worrying my parents were two of his 11 victims less than an hour before his arrival.

While mass shootings are often presented as a recent phenomenon, medical personnel have been caring for criminals—and of course their victims—for many years. In 1996, for example, Martin Bryant went on a shooting rampage in Australia, murdering 35 people and injuring 21 others. Royal Hobart Hospital was the only trauma-equipped facility in the area, and thus it fell to the staff to care for Bryant and the 21 others injured in the encounter. Since Royal Hobart also served as the city mortuary, it received all 35 who had died. It’s impossible to chronicle the weight the hospital staff must have felt—encountering police, media, and scores of grieving families while striving to care for the survivors. “Think of Bryant as a freak,” forensic psychiatrist Ian Sale, who interviewed Bryant, counselled. “Think of him as a natural disaster.” This made it easier to distance ourselves from such evil—and believe a similar event would not happen again. Until it did. Our theology could have told us in 1996 that Bryant wasn’t a freak, but an image-bearer. A marred image-bearer, but an image-bearer nonetheless. This sobering reminder should inform our encounters with any fellow human being, regardless of how inhumanely they behave.

Many of us can wax passionately about laying down our lives for others until we encounter the specifics. Surely we are not being called to care for them. Mahler’s recent decision to accept this assignment wasn’t the most remarkable thing in his response. It was the degree to which he responded. He writes, “I’m sure he had no idea I was Jewish. Why thank a Jewish nurse, when 15 minutes beforehand, you’d shoot me in the head with no remorse? I didn’t say a word to him about my religion. I chose not to say anything to him the entire time. I wanted him to feel compassion. I chose to show him empathy.”  This grace wasn’t merely amazing, it was downright infuriating. Are we obligated to care—to say nothing of caring deeply—for the Martin Bryants and Robert Bowers of the world? After all, it’s likely Mahler had several respectable opt-out choices. He could have asked a non-Jewish nurse to take this admission, and no one would’ve thought less of him. Some would call that “professional.”

While there are dozens of citations in the medical literature directing doctors and nurses to “suspend moral judgment” when caring for ungrateful, hostile patients, few offer practical instruction. Fewer still would advise how to save the life of a person you know for certain would end yours if given the opportunity. Surely God wouldn’t expect this from us. Are the Mahlers of the world just overachievers in the good works department? When a lawyer in Luke 10 asked Jesus something similar—”Who is my neighbour?”—he gave a detailed response. With surgical precision, Jesus tells of a Jew in great need who received care from his enemy, a Samaritan. When I first read this story to my then-9-year-old daughter, Anna, the irony of a Samaritan helping a Jew was lost on her since she wasn’t privy to the historical background. Instead, she asked a thoughtful question, “Where was the Samaritan going?” This good Samaritan suspended whatever errand he was on to intervene on behalf of a sworn cultural and religious enemy. This was no mere band-aid. It was nothing short of what nurses today call a holistic, patient-centred approach. Who is my neighbour? Be honest. Can you not relate to this lawyer, even though we know he wants to justify himself? How much compassion do you expect me to have, Lord? I have limited time, money, and energy. Surely there are others better suited to help. Where is this person’s family? Isn’t there something in the Bible about the family helping first? But Jesus responds to the lawyer with a better question—How can I be a caring neighbour? The “who” is assumed. Love the people you encounter in your day-to-day activities. For some, it may be a Bryant or Bowers. For others, it may be a relative you sit with at Thanksgiving dinner.

Rereading Luke 10 now, I identify more with the lawyer than the Samaritan. I’m prompted to pray, “Lord, deliver me from self-justification. Grant me the grace to love my enemies in ways that are costly, time-consuming, and inconvenient. Don’t let me see the opportunities you give, count the cost with my meagre resources, and just walk away in the false confidence that this wasn’t my calling.” When God gives us more than we can handle when he asks of us more than we believe we can give—and he will—those moments should not drive us to justifications but Jesus himself.

Credit: Gaye Clark for The Gospel Coalition, 19 November 2018.