The night of Tuesday, Sept. 3, was an unsettling one. Someone had tweeted a maddeningly specific yet nonspecific threat to enact a hate crime at a Pittsburgh hospital at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. As it would turn out, the perpetrator was a juvenile male in Beaver County, who, according to news reports, had no intention of carrying out such a crime.

I found out about the threat at 10 p.m. that Tuesday night from a non-physician grade school friend who had kindly forwarded the warning to me as well as her other friends who worked in healthcare. That, to me, was the single warmest act of friendship I could imagine. In the classic movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the benevolent character Sallah’s tagline is, “Oh my friends! I am so pleased you are not dead!”

A business school classmate I barely knew was a bit stunned during the first week of class when I insisted on and facilitated his getting an Epi-Pen in case his severe allergy flared during international travel. He asked me why, and like an idiot, I blurted out the first thought that came to me: “Well, I rather like you, and I don’t want you to die.” He paused, then laughed and said, “It’s really nice that someone doesn’t want me to die.” And so began our friendship. For isn’t that feeling the core of friendship, and of human decency?

The news did not give the specifics of the threat, only that there was a threat against Pittsburgh hospitals. I called my dad to warn him, and texted my partners and fellows and office staff and as many physician and nurse friends that I knew would be in the hospital the next morning and who wouldn’t think I was nuts for texting them at 11 at night, and who might not have been warned in other ways, and who I knew would start a phone tree to their own network of physician friends. If I know you personally but didn’t text you, I didn’t have your number, and if I somehow missed you, I am sorry.

The responses I got, the phone tree that started many branches so late at night, and the comradery among colleagues heartened me. Be safe. Be alert. Thank you; I’ll pass it on. I’m at hospital X tomorrow – where are you? We all came together as siblings. None of us thought about not going to work the next morning; instead, we mentally pictured our office layouts and grimly formulated escape routes in our heads. We wondered how many patients would show up the next day. We all probably wondered who would cover for us and see our sick patients if anything bad actually happened. I was sad, angry and yes – a little scared. I was upset for all the patients who would be scared, and for all the family members who would be worrying about their loved ones. And for the worried family members of physicians and nurses and all healthcare workers at risk.

The fact that so many people in both health systems didn’t know about this threat at all left me in awe of how vulnerable we are collectively as medical professionals. We are sitting ducks in that way. Not everyone checks email after dinner for alerts that might appear. The hospitals all did a great job of activating security protocols and working with police, strengthening security in case the threat was real or in case of a copycat criminal. I can’t help thinking that we need a phone alert system for physicians and hospital staff that hospitals can use as a warning tool. I think we also should have a physician phone tree system.

Hate crimes are unfortunately too commonplace as we tragically found out last year with the Tree of Life shooting which claimed our own beloved Jerry Rabinowitz, a physician whose memory is cherished by his patients and colleagues. Many physicians are minorities by ethnicity or religion and therefore especially vulnerable, although hate crimes can take place against anyone. Hate is the sickness, and it seems to be an epidemic in today’s world.

The young man who perpetrated this horrible prank probably has no idea what it means to be sick, to be fearful, or to heal and give back. It’s a sick solipsism that likely enveloped him, and perhaps a feeling of self-importance at having caused so much chaos. But only if he had a loved one who desperately needed surgery and put it off because of this threat, or missed a chemo appointment, or had taken a day off to get a test or procedure or workup done only to miss it out of fear … perhaps he might understand the human impact of his actions. Perhaps if he thought how badly the chaos he caused affected the mental state of people who already have anxiety or depression or PTSD. Perhaps if he thought of his loved ones; perhaps if he put himself in the place of others. Perhaps if he thought of others, full stop.

A dear friend of mine (whose attitude toward difficult people I deeply admire) always says: “Well, he/she couldn’t be very happy if they behave like that.” The Dalai Lama has said that the secret to happiness and avoiding pain is to stop thinking about yourself and help others. The motto of my high school is: “Think also of the rights and comforts of others.” The knowledge is out there.

If we could find a way to get through to this young man and to the many others like him that seeing beyond their own pain and problems by giving the very love they crave to others is the solution to their ills, perhaps we could heal this sickness.

In the meantime, take care of yourselves and each other, and be careful out there.

Author profile
Deval (Reshma) Paranjpe, MD, FACS

Dr. Paranjpe is an ophthalmologist and medical editor of the ACMS Bulletin.