Why do some nurses kill? Most people attracted to the nursing profession possess deep reservoirs of compassion for others. And yet, every once in a while we read about a nurse intentionally taking the life of a patient.
Today’s case comes from Italy, where a forty-two year old nurse is under investigation for thirty-eight possible cases of murder. And we are not talking about the ending of a life that some would term euthanasia.
Poggiali did not overdose them to end their suffering. She did it simply because they irritated her. She, or their relatives, bothered her.
One troubling aspect of the case could only happen today. Authorities have actually found a photograph on her phone where she is standing beside a deceased patient giving a “thumbs up” sign. (The article didn’t indicate whether this was a sickening “selfie,” or if there is another person at the hospital with a similarly demented sense of humor.
When people we implicitly trust violate our faith in them, it is jarring. We struggle to comprehend things when . . .
Medical professionals intentionally cause injury . . .
Clergy behave immorally, particularly when they attempt to justify it from the pulpit . . .
Police victimize rather than protect . . .
Teachers care more about themselves than their students . . .
Soldiers display cowardice rather than courage . . .
There is some good news here. It is precisely because these breaches of our expectations are the rare exception, that we are shocked by them. For the most part, people entrusted by the public with authority or power honor that trust.
(Let’s exclude, for our discussion here, the case of politicians, where that supposition would be hotly debated. As Lewis in his essay “Equality” wrote, “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.”)
Our trust in people who occupy special positions goes so far as to be illogical. For example, we tend to think of actors or actresses as possessing the traits of various characters they have portrayed.
We laugh at the joke, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Yet, we’re still tempted to ask the person how we can best deal with our persistent cough or chronic rash.
We think of television cops as believing in law and order, but if we seriously considered the matter, we would recognize just how foolish that is. They are no more, or less, likely than anyone else in Hollywood to be law abiding.
An ongoing scandal reveals just how disorienting it can be to have our illusions shattered. It is the case of Stephen Collins. In the popular Seventh Heaven series, he played the ideal father. A pastor, no less. We mourn for the lives he has injured, and we subconsciously grieve our own disillusionment.
The solution to the problem is not in ceasing to trust others. Life from that perch would result in paranoia and alienation.
No, I think that it still makes sense to trust—within limits. I am willing to extend my trust to someone in a respected profession who I have just met. That is based on the profession’s self-policing of standards.* Most require minimal education and competence standards, and have mechanisms for decertifying those who violate professional ethics.
Still, when time allows, the best advice is probably to “trust and verify.” The time I take to verify whether the person’s credentials or claims are true corresponds to the importance of what I’m entrusting to them. I would leave my car with a mechanic far sooner than I would entrust my child to a babysitter.
Returning to the case with which we began, we assume that a hospital is one of the safest places to be. And, even in light of the latest tragedy, this remains true.
For every one nurse tempted to end a complainer’s life early, there are a hundred thousand** who are striving to prolong the lives of their charges.
Trusting should not only be viewed as something we extend to others. Each of us would do well to ponder for a few moments just how trustworthy we are. This is especially true for those of us in privileged or respected professions. However, it is no exaggeration to say that the measure of any woman or man is determined by the degree to which they have earned the trust of others.
Lewis writes about the nature of trust, as it relates to friendship. It doesn’t relate to trust imbued in societal roles, but rather in the trust that exists where a relationship is already present. Still, he expertly describes the interplay between mind and heart, when it comes to trust. And this explains, in part, why the betrayal of our trust causes us so much anguish, in mind and soul.
To love involves trusting the beloved beyond the evidence, even against much evidence. No man is our friend who believes in our good intentions only when they are proved. No man is our friend who will not be very slow to accept evidence against them. Such confidence, between one man and another, is in fact almost universally praised as a moral beauty, not blamed as a logical error. And the suspicious man is blamed for a meanness of character, not admired for the excellence of his logic. (“On Obstinacy in Belief”).
* The fact that some “professions” don’t have any mandatory requirements or standards, means that I remain wary when I meet people sporting those titles. For example, in America it’s possible to “ordain” oneself (or buy a meaningless diploma or certificate online). Thus, when someone tells me they are a minister, I am eager to learn more (about their education, congregation, accountability, etc.). There are far too many hucksters out there to take a person’s word for it that they are a genuine minister of God.
** Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but I’d like to continue believing that the ratio is something wonderful like that, 1:100,000. Then again, if I think of it literally, in terms of how many are “tempted” to expedite the passing of an inconsiderate and ungrateful patient, I imagine the numbers might be rather less encouraging.