Today I saw a prominent local businessman I know.  I passed him in one of the restaurants he owns, where he was meeting with his wife and some others who were themselves involved in his restaurant.

He asked me how things were in the ER.  ‘Wide open,’ I answered, in a standard South Carolina idiom.  I then said, ‘and some of our patients are even paying their bills!’  He looked uncomfortable and said that he had paid his.  And suddenly, either from internal guilt or external vibes, I felt a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge.

Never one to shut up when I could, I continued.  ‘Of course, with the economy, we see a lot of folks who can’t pay, and that’s what we do.  But it’s always odd for someone to say that they’re in the ER because they owe money to another doctor.’  Cough, ahem, cough.  ‘And the flu season seems to be getting better!’

He said that was good, then asked me if I had been on any mission trips lately.  We discussed some docs who have, and then I went on my way.  I felt confident from the look on his face, and the looks in the eyes of the others, that I was considered just another greedy, grasping doctor.

Ah well, lesson learned.  First, ‘don’t say everything that comes into head!’

Second, ‘don’t assume that others, even business owners, will understand what you’re saying.’

Third, ‘a Christian has to be careful expressing his frustrations, so that he does not dishonor Christ and His teaching.’

Regarding the first, I just like to talk.  I’ll talk to almost anyone for a while.  And I tend to run on and on, in a kind of ‘free association exercise.’  It isn’t necessarily good.  I need to speak in vague generalities when involved in spontaneous conversations with acquaintances, or those who are merely strangers.

Regarding the second, even many businessmen can’t grasp the idea that an emergency room or hospital has to see vast numbers of people for free, or even at a loss.  And to suggest that it may be financially difficult, or unpleasant, is simply to incur the label ‘greedy,’ or ‘typical doctor.’  Of course, if hospitals didn’t provide overhead, no emergency physician could actually afford to practice under current federal rules.  Just as no business, especially no restaurant, could stay afloat if it could only bill it’s customers, but never demand payment at the time of service; and all under threat of federal litigation for failure to comply.

About the third, we Christian physicians still practice in the world.  We believe ourselves called to serve God.  But we serve in many ways.  Some in full-time mission work, some in charity, some in actual businesses.  If we are called, if we follow His leading, there is no superior type of practice.  No missionary can rightly look down his nose at the man making a living in a private practice, if that man is where God calls him.  And no woman in private practice can look askance at the one doing charity-work in an inner city.  We are all workmen, we are all parts of one body.

As such, we have to represent our Lord in our actions… and our words.  My frustration with certain aspects of my practice may be vented in the right setting, among those who understand it.  Or with salt and seasoning in my words, I may vent it in a more public forum if it has a constructive purpose.  Random rants do not honor my Redeemer.

But I took a minute to consider the parting question, ‘have you been on any mission trips?’  I haven’t.  And yet I have.  No restaurant owner that I know of has stood face to face with a violent schizophrenic, and asked the police to bring him back to the restaurant.  None have given free food to those who could clearly afford to pay for it, but didn’t just because they didn’t want to; or because they preferred to spend their free cash on crack or cigarettes.

What I do in the emergency department, what my Christian (and even non-believing) brothers and sisters do in those departments, amounts to a kind of chronic mission trip.  Yes, we are paid for it.  But there are languages we don’t know, cultures we don’t understand and brokenness and suffering as real as any along the equator or across the ocean.

Looking back, I wish I had answered differently.  But I know, in reflection, that I’m doing the right thing in my work.

I just need to remember to describe it more carefully.

And so do we all, if we are called by our Maker and Savior to the work of medicine.  Especially as we enter this hopeful and often troubled season of the Nativity.


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