It Only Took One

Posted: July 22, 2014 in Uncategorized

When I was a physician assistant student at Midwestern University, I met the One.

And I don’t mean my husband (truth be told, I already had him hook, line and sinker).

I mean the one patient that changes how you look at all patients. This happens all the time in medicine. If used for the worst, it is how stereotypes are born. You have a patient who behaves a certain way, who has a certain illness and somewhere in the recesses of your subconscious, you are cataloging your experience and will draw on it for future guidance.

I had been around the homeless or those at risk for being homeless many times growing up. The daughter of two hard working parents, I was taught the value of understanding that many people go without. We volunteered at soup kitchens and shelters. My mother, a pediatric physical therapist, has spent her career working with families who are often just one misstep away from losing their roof. But this was different. Now I wasn’t just a volunteer serving food, I was providing health care.

It was a very cold night and the waiting room of a small free homeless clinic just outside of Chicago was full.  I could not wait to start seeing some patients that night. However, before I could really start, I caught wind of a conversation taking place in the waiting room. Three or four of the patients seemed intensely concerned about John, a rather robust man sitting in the corner chair. Being a nosy PA student, I asked them if everything was alright. Before they could answer, I looked at John. He was sweaty, pale and seemed agitated. As I approached him, he and I locked eyes. And in that instant, I knew something was terribly wrong with him.

Chest pain. A history of uncontrolled hypertension because he could never afford the $10 copay. Claudication. Even though in hindsight, my depth of medical knowledge matched that of my children’s kiddie pool in the backyard, I knew that he could be having a heart attack. A quick hook up to the EKG machine and our suspicions were confirmed. Off he went in an ambulance.  But this is not what made him the One.

Rather, it was the reaction of the waiting room. People were crying, pacing, tense. They were extremely concerned about John. I thought it was sweet.  They thought I was naïve (they were right). John wasn’t just another one of Chicago’s nameless faceless homeless. He was a leader in chronically homeless subculture of this Chicago neighborhood.  Everyone knew John. And John knew everyone. They told me how John had been chronically homeless in Chicago for 27 years. He always knew when there was a new street sleeper and he tried to help them. He would tell the newbies where the soup kitchens were, how to avoid the cops, where to get a free mammogram.

John was the keeper of the knowledge.

It was in this moment that I realized the superficial nature of most peoples understanding (at the time, self included) of the homeless. They were faceless and nameless to us, the outsiders. But to each other, they were bonded brethren. They trusted each other and they worked together to survive.

This epiphany changed everything. It was enlightening and fascinating. It was a world that I wanted to know all about – not so that I could be a prying nosey neighborhood watchdog but rather I realized that I could never really help these people if I didn’t understand their reality. This was the start of the journey.

  1. Brooke Deisher says:

    Great opener.


  2. Kathy Ehrhardt says:

    Tremendous start to your blog Corinne. It is important to tell the story as you started here. You and Brett are an inspiration. Both of you have inspired my interest and desire to help the homeless. My times volunteering in the DeSales Free Clinic with our students have been wonderful experiences. It is amazing how much of a difference having that clinic has made in so many lives; our patients, our stuudents, our faculy and our preceptors just to name a few. It fills my heart when I hear our studdents talk about treating “their patients” at the clinic. The students and all who volunteer there have a vested interest in making a difference. We have made a difference!


  3. Kevin Orlin Johnson says:

    Wonderful! I hope that you’ll be able to keep blogging, even with all of the other demands on your time. And be sure to save all of your essays in a secure place, for your forthcoming book.


  4. Bill Andria says:

    It is hard to believe that our little girl has made such an impact to her new community in the Allentown area. And it started because she wanted to become a physician assistant and chose an outstanding program at Midwestern University which introduced her to an
    outreach homeless program that has.
    had a lasting effect on both Corinne and Brett. Over the last 6 years her mother and I have been so incredibly impressed by her energy and commitment to the less advantaged individuals in the Lehigh Valley. And her best friend and loving husband is as committed to the same goals is commendable and exciting. Saying that her mother and I are so very proud of of her and her husband’s accomplishments coupled with the three beautiful children they care for so well only reinforces the old adage on you need to have something done as someone who is busy. With Brett beginning his street medicine practice with the support of Lehigh Valley Hospital and the continued support of the DeSales University for the Homeless clinics and all the wonderful physicians who volunteer their time, we’re so so appreciative of that support. Continued success guys


    • Kevin Orlin Johnson says:

      Well, you know them better than I do, that’s for sure, but anybody who knows these two even casually is proud of them!


  5. Lisa Thiel says:

    Great first entry to your blog. Can’t wait for more. It has been beyond inspiring to watch you build your clinic. You are changing the world , saving lives and showing your babies the importance of unconditional love. You and Brett are rock stars.


  6. I love what you’re doing! We just had an all day team meeting for our Clinical Nurse Specialist group and discussed population health. Everyone was in agreement that I would be the CNS out on the street figuring out how to keep a homeless person’s insulin cold with a solar powered mini cooler or something. Too bad we didn’t live closer so we could work together!


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