When Altruism Goes Wrong

Before I became a medical student, I was an enthusiastic premed, always willing to help and ready to make a change in the world. Of course, I maintain that I still have the same sense of wonder and spirit. But there was one particular incident that made me realize how bright-eyed and bushy-tailed I was, or more like, how naive I was to think that people depended on me and that I could fix everything. It really was a harsh wake-up call and taught me an important lesson. Even now, after about 4 years, I lie in my bed at night and think about what happened.

I had just finished my volunteer shift at a hospital located in a not-so-good neighborhood in LA county. It was late, around 9PM, and I was ready to drive back home and devour my frozen meal. As I walked out into the empty waiting room to get to the exit, I noticed that the room was not so empty. A woman was sitting in the corner hugging her knees to herself, as if doing so could make her invisible. My first instinct was to simply ignore her and get out of there. But I noticed the way she shivered in the cold, how she sank down into her chair, and some visible bruises on her arm. A pang of guilt overcame me, and I approached her to ask what she was doing in the waiting room. “Miss, we are about to close. Are you waiting for someone?” She looked up at me, and there were tears in her eyes, welling up but not yet falling down. She answered, “No, I’m not waiting. I just needed a safe place. It’s really cold here, can I please get a blanket if you have any?” I told her that my shift was done and I cannot provide her blankets unless she is a patient. In my head, many questions popped up and started gnawing at me. Why did she need a safe place? Why did it have to be an empty room in a hospital? Is it even my place to ask her the question? She looked too clean and well-dressed to be homeless and carried only a small black purse, definitely not big enough to fit a toothbrush and toothpaste. After some hesitation, I asked, “Are you okay? Is there something bothering you?” She politely waved her hand “no,” but the tears now streaming down her cheeks told me otherwise. Being the curious and sympathetic premed, I said to her, “You can tell me, maybe I can help you.” Her words came pouring out of her mouth, disorganized, rushed, and sprinkled with chokes. 

The story “Jane” told me goes like this. She came to the emergency room with her boyfriend because he was not feeling well. Their relationship had been rocky, boyfriend being physically and emotionally abusive, and Jane always on the receiving end. During their stay at the hospital, he began to cuss at her and shout hurtful things. When she couldn't take it anymore, she chose to hide from him and ended up in the waiting room. Now she didn’t know where to go or how to take care of herself. Jane ran away out of desperation, but everything seemed to convince her to go back to her boyfriend, he would at least provide shelter and food. Hearing her story made my vision go blurry from tears. I wanted to help Jane, to be the person to say that it’s okay to leave her abusive relationship. In my mind, there were only two options: to go home, live the rest of my life knowing that there was a woman in need but I didn’t do anything OR to get this woman away from her boyfriend and provide safe shelter. Answer was obvious, and I knew what I had to do.

We walked out of the hospital, making sure to avoid the emergency room, towards the parking lot. Jane got in my car and I drove her to a nearby motel. I tried to check her in, but the lady behind metal bars and bulletproof glass said that she had no available rooms. She seemed to be lying, since there were two or three other guests in the lobby who received keys without any issue. I guessed it was difficult for her to trust a petite girl in baby blue volunteer uniform and an older woman sheepishly tagging along. We went to another motel just a few blocks away. It was even more run-down than the previous one, some windows had multiple holes, the doors creaked loudly, and the stairway was barely wide enough to fit one person. The motel manager and his wife looked at me and the woman with bewilderment and caution. But instead of rejecting her, he said, “your ID and 50 bucks a night.” Jane did not bring her wallet and had no form of identification, so I gave my driver’s license and paid for a few nights stay. She thanked me for all my help, expressed how grateful she was to have met me. I even handed her some cash that I had left over so that she could buy something to eat. As I walked out of the motel and drove back home, I felt like I really made a difference in her life. I came to her rescue at her darkest moments and provided a helping hand.

After a few days, I called the motel that I had last seen her. To my surprise, the manager recognized me almost immediately. I didn’t even get the chance to ask what happened, he simply started talking loudly with frustration evident in his voice. I could hardly believe what he told me. He said that she brought different guys to her room each night. When she left, she stole everything in her room, including LED light bulbs, pillows, and towels. But he decided not to call the police or press charges, because he didn’t want to make trouble and knew that I was only trying to help her. My heart sank to the bottom of my stomach. All I could think was, Jane betrayed me! How could she commit such crimes as a recipient of such kindness? When I regained my composure, I apologized profusely to the manager and thanked him for being so understanding. I hung up the phone and was overwhelmed by a mix of emotions: betrayal, disappointment, sadness, and anger. But there was something else - sympathy.

I felt like JD, the main character of the TV series Scrubs, when he thinks he successfully convinced his patient to quit smoking, only to find out later that he never quit. I encouraged her to leave her abusive relationship, only to find out later that she broke my trust and acted out in the worst way possible. Would I have done things differently? Oh yes, definitely. I could have helped by simply connecting her to a social worker at the hospital. But do I regret what I did? I don’t know, and I still have trouble answering this question. The truth is, I did what I could to help a woman in need. In that moment, I was a premed student, willing to help and ready to change her life around. I do admit that what I did was bold, rash, naive, and stupid, but I can’t help shake the feeling that what I did was right. Given the circumstances, I was humane and caring, doing everything in my power to give her comfort. After all, isn’t this what a physician does? A doctor will do everything in his or her power to diagnose, treat, and care for the patient, no matter who the person is. If this incident did indeed teach me an important lesson, it would be not only “don’t trust random strangers and give all your money,” but also, “be kind and help others despite the circumstances you may suffer.” I still think about Jane from time to time. I lie awake at night wondering if her story were true, what drove her to steal, and what she is doing now. But in the end, I sleep soundly knowing that I did what I could and I will do the same for my future patients.

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Authors Bio Below


Whi Inh Shirley Bae

Second year medical student, aspiring emergency medicine doctor. Hobbies: Choir Piano Accompanist, Minimum 2 Movies a Week, Amateur Flower Bouquet Maker. Future Corgi Owner.



Unbeknownst to the Patient

Unbeknownst to the Patient