The Line of Fire
My patient was dying and her son was angry. He took it out on me and the police came. Within one very slow hour, three hospitals in two different cities were on lock down, and I have never been so afraid. More than one life can flash before your eyes in an instant — I know that now!
She came to us at eighty-nine years of age, all set to unravel under the weight of too many birthdays. Her worn out internal organs could not possibly bear the assault as the wave of severe pneumonia washed over her. The illness that had brought her to our ICU was killing her regardless of our full-on efforts to save her life. She’d never indicated that she wished us to do otherwise, so we had to do everything within our power to keep her on this planet. The law tells us so.
With his mother failing, despite our fancy machines and medications, her son lost it. “You will regret the day you were born” he screamed, shaking a violent fist in my face and looking deranged, “and I intend to make sure you do!” He stared me down, but I held soft eye contact, hoping to communicate in one gaze, “I understand you’re upset, I care about your mother, please don’t kill me.” Security called the police department who called the detectives who interviewed his family and decided the threat was real. He had a track record of violence and incarceration. By the time all the smart people decided I was in danger, he was on the loose and nowhere to be found.
For three days police drove by my house at all hours, hospital security told me where to park so they could meet me at my car to walk me into the hospital, and my neighbor — he saw the police presence and got curious — offered me a gun. I’ve never had a gun, but suddenly, not knowing where an angry and unhinged man was, who held the delusion that his mother was perfectly healthy and that I was killing her, it seemed interesting.
Everything I had ever championed about nonviolent communication suddenly seemed so impotent and obsolete. The veiled text messages he continued to send to his dad about “taking out the doctor” kept coming, and so the needle of my inner barometer couldn’t help but swing widely toward the hypervigilant side of armed caution. Reluctantly, I accepted the gun but right away hid it in a far corner of a useless drawer. I couldn’t decide: Was I more afraid of him or the illicit chunk of crazy metal hidden in my home?
The day she died the police were there when I had to tell him. When the words left my mouth, “I’m so sorry; she’s gone,” they seemed stupid, thin and so incomplete. I could only watch in slow motion as my fear turned to deep compassion. He sank to the floor in front of me and sobbed. I couldn’t help it. I cried too and suddenly, with striking clarity, I understood. His threats to me had been a desperate attempt to hold on to the mother he loved and was quickly loosing. Maybe she was the only one who had ever truly believed in him all through his tumultuous and trouble life.
I tried to reach out to him, wanting to rest my hand on his shoulder, but the policeman grabbed my arm. “It’s best not to touch him,” he warned. But, I didn’t care. “He needs me to,” I said. I touched him but he never looked up. He probably didn’t even know it was me who had reached out. He likely never had really focused on me personally, I realized. I was a convenient deflection for his internal desperation to latch on to something secure.
Seeing him buckle under his grief, I knew that I was no longer in the line of fire. Perhaps I never was, although it had seemed so real and threatening at the time. To lose someone you love can bring out the irrational in all of us. I know that and I’ve seen it. Still, despite the threatening ripples that sometimes come my way, I intentionally choose the path that often puts me in the line of fire, even though it will occasionally manifest a police escort.