coworker thinks she has the power to heal her own tumor

A reader writes:

My dad works in a unionized position in a public care facility where he and his colleagues work directly with the residents. His workplace is straight-up toxic and delivers non-stop drama. His coworkers treat the residents terribly, they constantly bicker and bully amongst themselves, they don’t always follow health codes, and don’t get me started on the protocols they’re breaking in response to COVID. Thankfully, our region has flattened the curve and we’re doing well in our recovery.

My dad also sees himself as an outsider on his team because he doesn’t engage in the same attitudes and actions as his coworkers. For many reasons, he hasn’t left his position, despite all of this.

Over the years, every time something incredibly strange has come up, I shared with my dad your advice: your workplace is toxic and this is not normal, don’t let this skew your sense of what is normal. But a new level of bizarre has come up and we just don’t know how to respond to it.

His coworker, Sherry, thinks she can heal people with her touch. For example, my dad recently complained of a sore wrist. Without asking, Sherry grabbed it, started touching it, and announced to my dad that he’s healed. Odd, but not why I’m writing in.

Here’s the bizarre and potentially triggering part: My dad recently found out that Sherry has a tumor of some sort on her breast and instead of seeing a doctor, she has been healing herself by cutting into the spot and “releasing the pressure” by letting herself bleed. She’s essentially practicing bloodletting, which is incredibly dangerous and not an accepted practice in modern medicine. It sounds like she has been doing this for some time, but we’re unsure how long.

How my dad found out is also quite upsetting. Sherry has been filming herself doing this and sent it to my dad’s colleague, Greg. Greg has been sharing the video as well — I’m unsure if he’s forwarding it along or just showing it to people. Either way, not okay. My dad immediately walked away when he saw what was on the phone.

Sherry went home sick a couple of days ago, letting the team be short and struggling to complete their tasks to care for the residents. My dad says she looked terrible — very faint and pale and thinks she should have gone home.

My dad is unsure about how to proceed. Does he loop HR into this? He’s worried about Sherry’s own health but also how this may impact her work, her decision-making when caring for the residents, and more. What’s the right next step?

Ohhhh.

On one hand, Sherry’s choices about how to treat her own medical condition are her own business and not something your employer has standing to get involved with, no matter how questionable you or I might think those choices are. That’s true even though Sherry recently left early, leaving the team short-staffed; that’s a thing that happens regardless of what medical advice people are following. (If she starts doing that all the time, that’s an issue for their manager. But it would be about the impact on the team, not about Sherry’s medical practices.)

However, is Sherry in a position to hear medical info from the people you serve, influence the treatment choices they make, or “heal” them with her touch? If she’s encouraging any of them to avoid medical treatment themselves or if you’re seeing other signs of delusions in the way she works with them, that’s 100% an issue your employer needs to hear about. Even if you don’t know for sure that’s happening, if it could happen because of the nature of the work she does, your dad has seen enough worrisome signs that it’s something he should raise with Sherry’s manager.

Also, if Sherry is sending coworkers a video of herself cutting her breast, that’s a problem on a few different levels, and that warrants alerting HR. If Greg asked for the video because he shares Sherry’s interest in bloodletting (there’s a sentence I didn’t expect to write), that would be between them. But it stopped being between them when he tried to show it to your dad and others. So yeah, HR.

There’s a larger question here, too: When someone is doing something dangerous to themselves, what is the right role for coworkers to play? Removing the question about how it might impact clients (addressed above), I’d say it largely depends on how dangerous the act is and what relationship you have with the person. Treating your own tumor (which could be cancer) by bloodletting rather than seeking medical advice certainly qualifies as very dangerous. But it also doesn’t sound like your dad has a close and/or deeply trusting relationship with Sherry where he could really dig into what’s going on (or just drag her to the doctor). What he does have standing to do is to say something like, “Sherry, I’m really worried about this. This could be cancer, and it if is, you’re putting yourself in a lot of danger if you don’t see a doctor as soon as possible. Please, please consult with a doctor before you decide how you want to proceed.” In fact, I’d argue that as a bystander, he has a moral obligation to say that. But beyond that and speaking to her manager and HR, your dad’s options as a coworker are pretty limited.

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