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Narrative Medicine

When Altruism Goes Wrong

Bae, Whi Inh Shirley

doi: 10.1097/01.EEM.0000549600.91022.35
Narrative Medicine

Ms. Baeis a second-year medical student and aspiring emergency physician. She is a contributor to the Physician Grind, where this article was first published. ( Follow the Physician Grind on Twitter @nuMosemed, and listen to the Physician Grind @ EMN podcast at





I was an enthusiastic premed student, always willing to help and ready to change the world. I think I still have the same sense of wonder and spirit as I did then, but one incident made me realize how bright-eyed and bushy-tailed I was, or more like, how naive I was to think that I could fix everything. It was a harsh wake-up call and taught me an important lesson. Even now, after four 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 9 p.m., and I was ready to drive back home to devour my frozen meal. As I walked out, I noticed that the waiting room was not very 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 ignore her and get out of there, but then 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. “No,” she answered, “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?”

Many questions 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 about it? She didn't look homeless and carried only a small black purse, definitely not big enough to fit a toothbrush. I finally asked if she was OK. She politely waved her hand, and said no, but the tears streaming down her cheeks told me otherwise. “You can tell me,” I said. “Maybe I can help you.”

Her words came pouring out, disorganized and rushed.

The story she told me went like this. She came to the emergency room with her boyfriend because he was not feeling well. Their relationship had been rocky, and he had been physically and emotionally abusive to her. He began to curse at her and shout hurtful things at her that night. When she couldn't take it anymore, she hid from him in the waiting room. She didn't know where to go or how to take care of herself. She ran away out of desperation, but everything seemed to convince her to go back to her boyfriend because he would at least provide shelter and food.

Hearing her story made my vision go blurry from tears. I wanted to help, to be the person to say that it's OK to leave her abusive relationship. I could go home and live my life knowing I didn't do anything to help a woman in need or get her away from her boyfriend and provide safe shelter. The answer was obvious.

We walked out of the hospital, making sure to avoid the ED. She 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. I guessed it was difficult for her to trust a 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. But then he said, “ID and 50 bucks a night.”

The woman 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 my help and 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 moment.

After a few days, I called the motel where 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. He had decided not to call the police or press charges because he didn't want trouble and he knew that I was only trying to help her. My heart sank to the bottom of my stomach. All I could think was, she 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. I do admit that what I did was bold, rash, naive, and stupid, but I can't 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. Isn't this what a physician does? Everything in her power to diagnose, treat, and care for the patient, no matter who the person is. If this incident taught me an important lesson, it would be not to trust random strangers and give away your money, but also to be kind and help others despite the circumstances you may suffer.

I still think about her 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 I sleep soundly knowing that I did what I could and I will do the same for my future patients.

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