The Greatest Act of Forgiveness Which I Have Ever Witnessed
Issue: January/February 2023
Author: Andrew Mayer, MD FAAEM
Emergency medicine is one of the professions where we are witnesses to both the best and the worst of human behavior. Sometimes we are participants in these human dramas and sometimes only spectators. Either way we are affected by them as people. We have all had to develop a hardened exterior to remain professional when this is absolutely required. Telling people that they have cancer or a tragic death notification requires kindness but also a level of professionalism which is not easy to obtain or maintain. Even the most hardened of us absorbs some aspect of the emotional events which we see. It is up to each of us as individuals to reconcile in our hearts and minds what we see and experience in our unique workplace. How we process what we see and feel can have huge positive or negative impacts on our psyches as well as our personal and professional wellness.
Most, if not all, of us have seen some horrific acts of violence and cruelty and the effects of these actions on the innocent. We care for the innocent victims of senseless violence. We also have to care for murderers, rapists, child molesters, and every sort of criminal imaginable. We have to clear the intoxicated driver for lockup who just killed a child in a wreck. We have to suture a laceration on a man who just killed someone in a fight. Our professional ethics appropriately require us to do our best to care for these people and also requires us to protect them from harm from individuals who feel justified in taking retribution upon them. These ethics are engrained in us so that we can act with little contemplation or moral ambiguity. I don’t think any of us doubts the intensity of emotion of a parent who has just learned their child has been abused or doubt their natural protective instinct to defend and protect their child. Who of you has interacted with a police officer whose partner has just been killed in the line of duty? These human instincts are raw with emotion and they place us as emergency physicians in the difficult role of protector for individuals who our natural instincts would be not to protect. This moral dichotomy is usually navigated with ease at least as it is happening as our training makes this instinctual. This is good and appropriate but we must process the event and realize the professionalism which this requires and its possible lingering effects on us.
One of the toughest situations to deal with is when a police officer presents to your emergency department fatally injured. Sadly, I have been involved in several such events and they are all tragic in their own way. The number of fellow police officers, ranking officers, elected officials, and press who show up can quickly overwhelm your facility. When this happens in a community hospital which is not a trauma center it is especially straining. Often, one of our main jobs is to control the situation by forcing everyone not vital to get out of your resuscitation area and department. These individuals are angry, upset, and feel that their brotherhood has been violated and they want action. Obviously, you must be calm and professional and control the room and the flow of information.
My last officer involved death was particularly tragic if there is such a scale. This officer’s death and the effect it had on me is the reason for this article. The officer involved was a young man who had recently returned from a combat tour in the military and returned to his law enforcement job. He worked nights and while driving home in the morning, he stopped at the scene of what he probably thought was an incident. He saw a woman laying by the side of the road and he stepped out of his car to check on her. As he leaned over the body, he was shot in the back of the head. The woman’s estranged husband had chased her down and shot and killed her. The officer apparently had no idea that it was a shooting scene and just thought there was someone injured at the scene of a wreck. Unfortunately, the husband was still at the scene when this young police officer leaned over her and he became the second victim.
I became involved when he presented as a trauma code a few minutes later. Sadly, it was an asystole code without even a chance for him to even become an organ donor let alone to be saved. We all performed our roles and everyone involved knew it was hopeless. Controlling the ever increasing number of interested parties was difficult but accomplished. This was the easy part as the medical treatment was straightforward.
The notification was worse than you could imagine. I walked into our family room with the chief of police. I saw a young woman in her twenties. She was very pregnant and was holding a toddler on her lap. I did my duty with as much gentleness as possible in this impossible situation. I held her hand while she quietly sobbed. There was no screaming but only quiet grief. We did what we could for her and her pastor was sent for to help.
Numerous police and political officials arrived to show their support and outrage. We soon learned that the assailant had taken a taxi to the top of one of our major Mississippi River bridges which connect the city. He forced the driver to stop at the top and he got out and climbed over the side onto a large bridge support. Presumably, he intended to jump and commit suicide. However, he changed his mind and a standoff was initiated. Where he was standing caused both major bridges to be closed which quickly paralyzed the city in traffic gridlock.
While the drama played itself out in the city, I was left needing to continue my shift and see other patients. Each of us has faced this challenge. Despite what we had to do and witness, our job requires us to move on. We learn to compartmentalize our thoughts and emotions immediately after one of these types of events because the emergency department did not stop while this one event went on. There were other patients to be seen and cared for despite the depth of human tragedy which you have just witnessed. As I walked into an angry patient’s room who had waited an extra hour for their results and disposition I could not do anything but apologize for the delay. I am sure they had no idea what was going on and their concern was themselves and their time. There would be no benefit to unburdening myself on them to make them feel guilty for their impatience.
My shift continued while the standoff on the bridge continued. The SWAT team was negotiating with the assailant on the bridge while the city’s traffic worsened. Ambulance transfers were being impacted as were thousands of peoples’ lives who were sitting stopped in traffic. The anger against this man was building. This is when an amazing thing happened. My duties required me to go through the resuscitation area. I was a quiet witness to the most amazing act of forgiveness which I have ever seen. There stood the new young pregnant widow praying over her husband’s body with her pastor. They were praying and were forgiving her husband’s murderer and asking God to help him (the murderer) to find peace and forgiveness. It was a scene of grace and it startled me. I was very angry with this man and wanted justice. Yet, here was the widow asking God to forgive her husband’s murderer as she had just done. I realized that despite the senseless violence which had occurred and the devastating impact it would have on this young family, that there was still goodness and kindness in this world. Frankly, it humbled me and made me feel ashamed for my anger.
Eventually, my shift ended. I entered the snarled traffic which had been caused by this tragedy. I later discovered that the murderer had killed himself after hours of negotiations with the police. It took hours for the traffic to return to normal. I had time sitting in my car stuck in traffic contemplating the day. I do not ever think I will forget the scene in the trauma room or the grace projected by the young widow. I wonder about her from time to time and hope that her act of forgiveness has helped her during what I am sure have been very difficult times. I learned from this incident to try to focus on the good which can be found in almost any situation and hopefully you can do the same when you encounter such a human tragedy.