We Don’t Get to Choose Who Receives Compassion

compassionIf you didn’t know, I’m a former paramedic. During my time on the ambulance, I responded to my share of overdose calls and I also expressed by share of frustration over them. Part of the reason was that I was simply following the example of my peers – I was expected to deride and offhandedly insult people who had overdosed so that’s what I did. One day I realized how wrong that attitude was when I responded to an overdose call and had to administer the drug Narcan. The house I responded to was where the patient lived with her husband and two young children. The husband expressed to me that he had been trying to get her to seek help for addiction but that so far his efforts were ignored by her. While I was working on his wife, I remember him saying “I just hope she gets help before it’s too late.” This with the backdrop of two young children who had to witness their mother almost die right in front of them because addiction had sunk its sharp teeth into her was used by God to convict me of my attitude and to change my heart.

EMS responders have a moral and an ethical (and when on duty legal) to render the best care possible to all regardless of who they are, what they look like, where they live, or the choices they made. None of the matters. EMTs and paramedics practice medicine and are not supposed to base their care on the circumstances of the patient. If someone calls for help, EMS is supposed to respond and is supposed to render the best possible care they are able, period, full stop. For the most part, in spite of some who feel that only certain patients deserve the best care (these providers have no business in EMS and should be stripped of their patches, but that’s another rant), EMS responders give excellent care and indeed save lives.

So imagine my shock, disappointment, and anger when I read about an elected official who wants EMS providers to pick and choose who deserves to live simply because of their poor choices.

Dan Picard (hopefully no relation to Jean-Luc) is a city councilman in Middletown, Ohio and wants EMS units to stop responding to calls for help involving opioid overdoses (story). He says that these calls are too expensive and that the city can not afford it. Mr. Picard is also in favor of issuing a court summons to overdose patients and requiring them to perform community service to compensate the city for saving his/her life. Here’s what Mr. Picard said he wants to do:

I want to send a message to the world that you don’t want to come to Middletown to overdose because someone might not come with Narcan and save your life. We need to put a fear about overdosing in Middletown.

That statement drips with something but compassion is not that with which it is dripping.

The councilman wants to punish people for seeking help for a condition which could very easily kill them (the fact that they took the drug is irrelevant). This plan is illegal, immoral, and unethical but let’s say it was implemented. The city would have a much larger problem: A sudden influx of overdose deaths because people are afraid to call for help for fear of being branded a criminal. I feel that would have a much worse effect on their budget than administering a bunch of Narcan (in addition to the moral, legal, and ethical considerations). Addiction is a disease (this is not up for debate – medical science proves this) and should be treated as a disease, not as a criminal offense.

For Christians, there are other issues to consider.

Whether we are talking about the medical field or anything else, we don’t get to pick and choose to whom we will show compassion and mercy. For Christians, compassion is supposed to be our way of life. Compassion is what Christians are supposed to be known for! From the very beginning, God was setting the example of showing compassion. We read in Genesis of the fall of humanity when Adam and Eve ate the fruit that God told them not to eat. He could have killed them where they stood but instead of showed compassion on them by making them animal skins to cover their newly discovered nudity.

Throughout scripture, we see other examples of compassionate action and instruction that as we have shown compassion we should show compassion. We read the words of Paul: “Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12 NLT). We also see an account in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus happened upon some blind men who cried out to him for their sight. This was his response: “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him” (Matthew 20:34 NIV).

While we don’t have to be Jesus, we are called to be like Jesus (Ephesians 5:1-2). Jesus did not pick and choose to whom he showed mercy and compassion when they were crying out. He freely showed compassion. If we are Christians, this is part of our calling. We do not get to pick and choose to whom we show compassion. We are called to be compassionate to the entire world.

I have no idea what, if any, faith Mr. Picard claims but I feel that he would do himself and his citizens well to follow the example of Jesus rather than the example of a group of politicians who do not believe in showing mercy to the poor and marginalized.

We all would.

Addict Shaming is not OK

Today there has been a picture circulating on Facebook, through major media outlets, and elsewhere. You may be wanting to say, “Yeah, yeah, as we call it around here: ‘Friday.'” This picture is something complete different and one that I refuse to share because I think it’s disgusting. This picture is of a man and a woman in a car who appear to be unconscious. There is also a young child in the back seat. The post that East Liverpool, Ohio PD shared on their Facebook page – which includes pictures of the couple unconscious in their car – indicates that the couple had apparently overdosed on heroine and allegedly drove to their son’s school to pick him up. They were eventually placed in the care of EMS and transported to the hospital after receiving “several rounds” of Narcan. The affidavit the officer wrote indicates that they may be charged with a crime but it’s not clear what that crime might be.

The picture has ignited a firestorm of debate about addiction and about whether shaming addicts is OK. Personally, I find it disgusting. Sometimes, against my better judgement, I just can’t help myself and I have to leave a comment about an article on media social media pages. When the Lexington Herald-Leader ran the story, I indicated on their post that I felt that shaming addicts was disgusting and does nothing to solve the problem. Several people have disagreed with me, as seems to be the case in such situations.

Simply, I don’t believe that it’s moral, ethical, or Christ-like for such to happen. We show a grave disregard for God’s children when we condone such actions. Perhaps as a summary of my comments and why I have come to these conclusions, I will share the final comment that I am leaving on the H-L’s post. I hope it will help to explain further why I feel like the East Liverpool PD has performed a great injustice (not to mention acting unprofessionally and unethically) by starting this.

I will respond to both of you (two people who had challenged my opinion). But first, you need to understand where I’m coming from. I’ve been a paramedic for nearly eight years and worked in a few different places both in Kentucky and Mississippi. I’m also serving as a pastor in Powell County which has one of the biggest drug problems in the nation. In short, I see it everyday. I live right in the midst of it just out my front door. I talk to people. I’ve treated people. That’s the thing: These are people, God’s children. We have to remember that.

The children should absolutely be protected. I’m not saying that one should not face consequences when they drive high or otherwise mistreat their kids. Those crimes should absolutely be dealt with. But simply locking an addict up for a while and calling it good doesn’t help. Arguments can be made that addiction is a choice but, medically and spiritually speaking, it’s a disease and should be treated as one.

Treatment, rehab, counseling, compassion, mercy… Those kinds of things are what help addicts. Parading them on Facebook does nothing to solve the problem. All it shows is a lack of regard for human dignity. The problem can only be tackled as one would tackle any disease.

The reasons one becomes an addict are varied but some things that seem common in my experience are lack of education, unemployment, and poverty. If we want to tackle the root causes of addiction we must fight those things. But I do acknowledge that only God may have the answers to those problems.

In John 8 we find an account of woman who was to be stoned for adultery. Jesus intervened and (more or less) said this: Let him without sin throw the first stone. I don’t know about anyone else but I have no right to throw stones. Yes, crimes have consequences and rightly so. But addiction does not get cured in jail. We have to show mercy and we have to actually help these people. Otherwise, we simply make it worse.