With the power that inevitably accompanies a professional role like that of physician or teacher comes the responsibility not to take advantage of others’ relative vulnerability.
Infertility problems are not something my life partner and I have had to worry about in our marital and procreative relationship. After giving birth to four of the most wonderful, near perfect children on God’s good earth, we decide that it could only go downhill from here.
So one of us has to do something about it. I draw the short straw and find myself in a family practice doc’s office a few weeks later. I don’t know this physician, nor does he know me. My regular primary care physician has referred me to this man because of a Chinese surgical procedure for vasectomy that his partner has just studied. He has not mastered it, however (I will discover rather too late), and will be trying out his new skills on me.
I don’t have anything against Chinese surgical procedures acquired by American doctors, but I do notice immediately that this practitioner is awfully young. He is also religious, I learn quickly. While doing the pre-surgical evaluation, he learns something about my own religious background and vocation. He is doing a sort of spiritual assessment, perhaps? We teach young student doctors to do so, encouraging holistic medical practice. My anxieties begin to ease. Perhaps he is more accomplished than I’d thought.
And then the physician shifts from spiritual assessment to something more like proselytizing. He chats with me about his association with a group I had heard of, and about which I have mixed feelings. This doctor, let’s call him Dr. P.K.—for Promise Keepers—is passionately favorable toward the males-only religious group he has joined. It becomes clear that he would love for me to feel the same way. As a Baptist clergyman, surely I do. Don’t I?
Although I truly have no interest whatsoever in any group that meets at 5 A.M. to jog and pray, it occurs to me that next time we meet, I will be lying unclothed on my back in a most vulnerable position and he will be applying a sharp instrument to a tender part of my body.
With just as much interest and enthusiasm as I can feign, I accept politely the religious literature my new doctor-sorta-surgeon hands out before exiting the examination room.
A couple decades later, I teach this case to medical students. I encourage them to assess their patients for faith and faith community for coping mechanisms and psycho-social support. I urge that they listen more than talk while in the examination room. I suggest to any faith-based future practitioners that they keep their religious tracts out in the waiting room; or better yet, leave them at home.
That doesn’t mean physicians and other healthcare professionals should, or could, totally separate vocation from faith, or no faith. I am not advocating sacred and secular distinctions in the professions, or really anywhere. This is about professional boundaries, and about not harming patients—or students or counselees or congregants.
Was I harmed by Dr P.K.’s boundaries breach, when he shifted his role from practitioner to proselytizer at the height of my vulnerability to his professional power? In a sense, yes, I was harmed. Seriously or permanently so? No. Like the scars and bruising that resulted from a partially botched surgical procedure by someone insufficiently practiced, the minor emotional wounds from his unprofessional blunder are long gone. It is simply fodder now for reflection on what I myself practice and teach as another sort of professional. With the power that inevitably accompanies a professional role like that of physician or teacher comes the responsibility not to take advantage of others’ relative vulnerability.
Dr. P.K. was well-intentioned, just inexperienced. Our encounter many years ago was a learning experience at least for me. And my life partner and I remain parents of four and no more.