Back Pain and a Lenten Lesson
Compassion is for everyone
She was large, and heavily tattooed. She was in a striped uniform with handcuffs, her feet shackled. She sobbed because of her back pain. Her life a long history of mistakes and bad choices; alcohol, drugs, criminality. Her family, husband and children, victims of her lifestyle, her addictions, her misdeeds.
What could I do for that pain? Inmates usually can’t have prescription narcotics in jail. I think Tylenol and Motrin do a good job but I wasn’t sure she would feel the same way. And in her cell, she slept on a thin mattress over a concrete floor. Getting up and lying down were agonizing, she said.
Was she lying about her pain? The era of the pain scale and satisfaction scores have made it almost heretical to ask the question. But anyone who works in medicine knows that some people abuse the system for the medications to which they are addicted, or which they sell.
Her drug screen positive for amphetamine, it was possible she wasn’t being honest. The officer with her said, ‘I’ve known her for 15 years. This is her. Crying and moaning. But what if she really has pain? It’s tough doc.’
It’s tough for sure. Knowing as I did that if she went back to jail, she might really be suffering. Knowing, also, that she had a reported history of heart disease even though she was only in her 30s. (Thanks tobacco and methamphetamine!) Knowing that she would surely come back with chest pain or back pain, legitimate or illegitimate, if nothing were done.I never
When she came for a second visit she seemed worse. She seemed to have difficulty standing. Her sobs continued. Her officer and I were sympathetic but worried about being tricked. I treated her pain and transferred here to another, larger hospital for an MRI. Maybe there was something going on in her spinal cord. Maybe a spinal cord hematoma, maybe an abscess. If so she would need surgery that my small hospital couldn’t provide. She would have to go in custody, with an officer, but nobody flinched or argued. From physicians at the next hospital to corrections officers down to paramedics, everyone was OK with the plan. Everyone recognized that she needed compassion.
However here is the conundrum of compassion, as it were. The compassionate will occasionally be cheated, fooled, and lied to. This is life in the ER. Life in politics. Life in family. Life in church. This is life on earth. The right thing is often, in the rear-view-mirror, exactly the wrong thing, as those who fool us laugh and drive away.
But we have the last laugh. Because the right thing is just that. The right thing. And it’s a great lesson here in the Lenten season. To show kindness, to give mercy, to expect to be the butt of the joke, the patsy, these are all the ‘price of doing business,’ when our business is being like Jesus.
I never received any follow-up so I don’t know what they found on her MRI. I believe she had pain, but even if she lied to me about its severity, even if she gamed me, it’s OK. I’m not offended. She was vulnerable. She was wounded. She was broken. She was a prisoner. And my worst day free was far better than her best in jail, sitting in a cell and reflecting on her troubles.
We could go on and on about how she caused her own suffering, made her own toxic choices, and maybe she did; or maybe she had been a lifelong victim of abuse that led her down that path.
But here’s what Isaiah, God’s prophet, said about captives and prisoners. And notice, no mention of guilt, or of punishment deserved or earned. He doesn’t say anything about prisoners who were actually falsely accused, or captives who brought it on themselves.
Isaiah 61: 1-3
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
Jesus said the same thing, quoting Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry, in Luke 4: 16-21 where he spoke what a modern CEO might call his ‘mission statement.’
In this passage is healing and liberty. And nobody is a ‘jailbird’ or ‘scumbag’ or ‘crook’ or ‘junkie.’ Even if we are, Jesus offered and offers this love and completeness, this renewal, to all.
This Lenten season, can I do any less? I, a captive of sin as all of us are, delivered and healed? I with blind eyes, seeing clearly thanks to my redemption? God knows if I lie to him, if I try to trick him. And loves me anyway.
And if it takes showing mercy to the meth-using prisoner with back pain to honor the mercy I received, well it’s a small price to pay.