Usually the story lines in medical soaps are ripped from the headlines, but the case of nurse Amber Van Brunt is the exact opposite. In a story that sounds suspiciously like a Grey's Anatomy plot line, Van Brunt is a real live nurse from Oklahoma who had sex with a dying patient named Chris Reiter.
Now she's in danger of losing her nursing license for 20 years over what she says was a consensual relationship. On Grey's, Katherine Heigl's character was a doctor (as opposed to a nurse) engaged in a relationship with a dying patient, but close enough. The lines between caregiver and person in need of care were blurred, and medical ethics went out the window.
It's sordid. But it brings up a major question. If you're a patient, do you give up your right to fall in love or have sexual urges?
After all, didn't your Granny always tell you: we can't help who we fall in love with? Van Brunt's attorney tells The Oklahoman the relationship happened off hours, when she was visiting Reiter, the 43-year-old man with Lou Gehrig's disease who she happened to meet as his nurse. They were "in love," the attorney says.
I'll take that with a grain of salt -- Reiter was already married when he met Van Brunt. And I'm no fan of health care workers embroiled in personal relationships with their patients. My mother is a nurse practitioner, and while I depend on her for medical advice, my husband and I have always made it a point to book our appointments with another caretaker. There is such a thing as being "too close" to a situation.
It's particularly bad in the case of a sick patient and a caregiver. It's easy to see how the latter can hold a position of power over the other. Reiter's family claims that happened in this case, which would put Van Brunt at fault.
But on the other side of the aisle is a very salient point: there aren't a lot of opportunities for the critically or chronically ill to encounter possible love interests. They're in and out of hospitals, in and out of doctors' offices, and often confined to a bed. For all intents and purposes, health care workers are their life now, and their only prospective dating pool.
If Reiter fell in love with Van Brunt and took part in a sexual relationship (there's evidence he talked of the affair and his regrets, which means he took responsibility for his own actions), it's the natural progression of things. What else is a dying man to do? We tend to think of the chronically ill as focused on their disease and not much else. It's completely unfair. They're still people, still driven by the desire to love and be loved and, yes, to have someone touch them. Sexual desires may ebb and flow, but being sick doesn't necessarily turn them off.
It's easy to demonize Van Brunt for having an affair with a married man. But demonizing her for falling in love with a patient is harder. He's still a man, she's still a woman.
Should there be some leeway for patients and caregivers?
Image via boliston/Flickr