Tattoos I regret: my first patient with Nazi ink

The patient is here in the emergency room with headaches, yet another patient not having an emergency, but its after hours, and we’re the only show open, medically speaking, here in Nome, Alaska.
He asks where I go to school, and I tell him Ben Gurion University, in Israel.
“I’ve wanted to visit Israel,” he tells me, “but I don’t think I can. I got some tattoos when I was younger, that I regret.”
There’s only one sort of tattoo that would make someone afraid to visit a Jewish state. I’m guessing he’s got a swastika, but it could be SS, or maybe the HH.
He won’t specify what tattoo he has, and I have no need to ask him to undress, so I never find out.
He’s a big guy, and not that old, but seems shrunken in the hospital bed. He has a mild, almost gentle manner, and sounds sheepish when he talks about the tattoos. It’s hard to imagine him part of a neo-nazi gang, but I’m gonna assume the tattoos signify more than a casual interest. I wonder how he got from there to here.
I tell him I couldn’t recommend walking around Israel with that sort of tattoo visible, but if he kept covered up he’d probably be fine, and there are enough religious groups where the men wear long sleeves even in the summer that it wouldn’t stand out.
The nurse gives him a shot of toridol and the doctor writes a prescription to fill the next day, and we suggest he stay on top of his med refills so he doesn’t have to come back here to the ER at night.
I didn’t imagine I’d be treating former neo-Nazis in Alaska. I suspect my former neo-Nazi patient did not expect to be treated by a Jewish medical student in Alaska either.
I’ve heard of Jewish doctors refusing to treat patients with Nazi tattoos before. To be honest, it never occurred to me in that situation, but I wonder if I would have felt differently if he seemed less contrite and sheepish, if I had discovered the tattoos incidentally.
I hope not. Their rules are not my rules, and I play on my terms, not theirs, and tonight that means a shot and a prescription.

[Nb. old draft that I’m finally getting up]


2 thoughts on “Tattoos I regret: my first patient with Nazi ink

  1. That’s intense. I’ve had a few racist patients, who thought I would make racist jokes with them, and it took a while for me to find the right way to tell them that I won’t participate or listen to their jokes, without having them storm out. I wouldn’t say I have it down to an art but I guess I’m getting a little better at it.

    Don’t know what I would do with Nazi ink. I think your patient’s attitude does help to some extent; but you’re right: we can’t really refuse to treat them even if they’re not embarrassed by their past actions… I’m glad this guy seemed sorry.

    1. hi- thanks for commenting! it’s a tough one when you don’t want to alienate a patient, but don’t want to tolerate what they’re saying.
      I’ve had racist patients before too, but generally in a context where the patient identified with me, and thought I’d share their disdain for another group (although I’ve heard it more from fellow doctors than patients, which probably reflects who feels empowered to say what). But this was the first time it related to hatred towards a group I’m part of- I think it’s reasonable to assume that people with Nazi tattoos think my people are subhuman and deserve to die, under the name/symbol of a movement that made a pretty good stab at wiping us out. It was in the end a fairly tame encounter with a lot roiling under it.

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