The Murderer is a Man

November 2, 2016

This family physician would never have believed she'd feel compassion for a murderer. But then, she had a patient who was one.

And that man is my patient.


I never thought I would feel compassion for a murderer.

Steve (I’ve changed his name) was sitting in a wheelchair when I walked into the exam room. The first features I noticed were his red face, hair pulled back in a pony tail, and imposing body habitus-I guessed about 250 pounds on a light day.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_crop","fid":"53504","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image media-image-right","id":"media_crop_7109317221507","media_crop_h":"0","media_crop_image_style":"-1","media_crop_instance":"6693","media_crop_rotate":"0","media_crop_scale_h":"0","media_crop_scale_w":"0","media_crop_w":"0","media_crop_x":"0","media_crop_y":"0","style":"height: 256px; width: 250px; float: right;","title":"aarows/Shutterstock.com","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]“Hello, I’m Dr. Brand.”

“Hi. I got to tell you, Doc, I’m a little nervous. I just got out of the institution after 17 years. This is all new to me.”

Hearing “17 years” made me pause for an instant, but I proceeded to take his medical history and perform an examination. I wondered if he had noticed my skipped beat. His blood pressure was was very high and was my most pressing medical concern.

“We need to treat your blood pressure. Have you ever taken medication for it?”

The reddish color of his face seemed to deepen as he stiffened.

“It’s always high, and they gave me a lot of different pills in prison. It’s high because I’m in pain. I just need to get my gabapentin.”

After a discussion about chronic pain, I advised we would refer him to a pain management specialist. His growing agitation made me eyeball the distance to the door.

The visit ended without incident, but with prescriptions for his blood pressure and pain. As I left the exam room and shut the door behind me, I felt myself take a deep breath before giving the discharge nurse a heads up on our patient’s simmering temper.

I admit we looked him up in the criminal data base to discover he had been convicted of strangling a man in our city. Time served, he was released and needed health care.

I saw Steve every two weeks for awhile, until we made a sizable dent in his blood pressure. I kept a respectful distance, but noticed I was more relaxed as his condition stabilized.

A couple of months later, he wheeled himself proudly into the exam room.

“I have a surprise for you, Doc.”

He pulled out a sheet of paper with a Walgreens letterhead recording a blood pressure of 160/82-not at goal, but a lot closer than we had been at the start.

“I’ve been going to AA meetings and have my 30 day chip. Sober. I’ve been doing everything you told me.”

Gone were the red face and agitation.

I smiled.

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks.”

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_crop","fid":"53505","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image media-image-right","id":"media_crop_6193147690984","media_crop_h":"0","media_crop_image_style":"-1","media_crop_instance":"6694","media_crop_rotate":"0","media_crop_scale_h":"0","media_crop_scale_w":"0","media_crop_w":"0","media_crop_x":"0","media_crop_y":"0","style":"height: 319px; width: 250px; float: right;","title":"Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock.com","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]On completing my examination, my eyes fixed on a rectangular bulge in his right sock.

“I hope that’s not a pack of cigarettes,” I offered.

“It’s my wallet. A couple of guys tried to rob me two weeks ago. I’m sitting in my wheelchair, when one says, ‘Hey, Pops, we need some money.’ I told ‘em, ‘you and your friend better leave, ‘cause I’ll kill you. I’ll do it.’ They left, and last week I saw the guy at Publix. He came up to me and apologized.”

It was part of the Steve I knew was still there. But I realized that without alcohol or drugs he had another side-the human side. It was the side that allowed me to accept his past and treat him as a patient who needed help.

When I left the exam room that day, the door didn’t seem as far away.