Archive for September, 2014

The weather has always baffeled me. In a strange way, weather has a way of forcing you into the next phase of the year, ready or not. Saturday had temps in the 90s with humidity so high that it made my normally very straight hair resemble the before shot of an antifrizz hair product commercial. Heavy rains came Saturday night and just like that, Fall arrived. Football, crisp morning air, windows open.  

Last Fall, Brett and I attended our first Street Medicine Symposium in Boston. The Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program has been the program that all others compare themselves to. It is a huge, well established program that has the most comprehensive programs, resources and street teams. The tentacles of this program seem to reach into all the parks, shelters, hospitals etc. To say we learned a lot would be a stupid understatement.  I recall having a conversation with Dr. Jim O’Connell, president and founding physician of the Boston program.  We were talking about funding (of course) and I said I was amazed at the multi million dollar budget of his program.  He inquired as to the budget of the DeSales Free Clinic and the scope of services. After I told him our annual operating budget was $15,000 he response was ” jeez, we must be doing something wrong if we need so much money”. We then talked about how we operate on limited funds. This is the attitude in Street Medicine – no matter how big or small your program is, fledgling or benchmark status, we can all learn from each other.

A unique feature of these conferences is participating in street rounds with the hosting institution. We really got to see how the pros get it done. I was rounding with a case manager who was looking for one patient in particular- John. She had not been able to find him for the last two weeks and was worried about him. We checked all the usual places that he hung out. We met his street friends who had much to tell us – except for where John was. And so our search continued.

It was about 6pm and downtown Boston was bustling with people leaving work. The streets and the crosswalks were very crowded, horns blaring, quick feet. At a particularly busy intersection, we began to cross just as we see a large dip form in the sea of humanity. As we approached, we saw that our lost patient- John- was right at our feet.  Wheelchair bound, he had lost his balance and tipped right out of his wheelchair and onto the ground. I was impresssed at the number of busy Bostonians who stopped to help him and make sure traffic would not hit him when the light changed to green. We scooped John back into his chair and moved him to the sidewalk. 

John was a rather imposing figure, both in size and in scowl. When you close your eyes and picture a chronically homeless man on a wheelchair, you are likely picturing John. Standing, he was most likely over 6 feet tall. He was wearing many layers of well worn and tattered clothing. He had on an old navy blue winter hat that was a little lopsided so only one eyebrow was showing. He was missing most of his teeth and had a rosy hue to his deeply wrinkled skin. He was not particularly friendly toward me and answered the case managers questions in a short and gruff tone. Yes he had been drinking. No, he didn’t need anything. No, he wasn’t hurt. Then she asked if he was hungry- and for a second, the fiercly guarded wall came down. He was hungry, and thirsty too.  He hadn’t eaten in several days. 

While the case manager went into a Panera Bread, I had a chance to talk to John (or attempt). I started by trying to figure out if he needed anything else since it seemed the peace offering of food had opened the door just a smidge. He told me part of the reason he had a hard time eating despite the available soup kitchens and food vans was that he had a peanut allergy. A severe peanut allergy. Imagine the great lengths moms across America go to in order protect their childreen from inadvertant peanut ingestion. There is even a service through my children’s daycare to find them a playdate with a child whose allergies match your childs ( think match.com but for kids with allergies). Before John, I had never considered what it would be like to have a food allergy on the street. I asked him a few questions about his peanut allergy and then, apparently, crossed the threshold of number of questions allowed.  

I had squatted down to talk to him. Being at the same eyelevel of someone who is wheelchair bound (homeless or not) is extremely important for leveling the playing field. Suddenly, John looked angry. He was nose to nose with me and yelled with a slurred speech, ” Do you reaaaaaaallllllllyyyyy care?” Pause. ” Well, do ya?!” I told him that I really did care. He looked away and muttered, “Well, I don’t know why.” 

There was they key to this whole interaction. Imagine wanting to be helped but feeling inside that you are so worthless that no one in their right mind should want to help you. Therefore, you prophylactically refuse the help because somewhere inside of you, you believe that you are protecting yourself from the inevitable. The dissapointment you will feel when the person decides you aren’t worth it and that they don’t care. Self preservation is a vital survival tool when living on the streets.

We walked with John to a location across town that he liked to hang out ( we had actually been there earlier that day looking for him). He was greeted warmly by his street brothers. A fleeting smile crossed his eyes (but not his lips). As we walked away, I turned back to see John breaking his sandwhich into four pieces – one for him and one for each of his street friends while they passed the bottle of newly purchased lemonade around. A reminder that the parable of the fishes and the loaves is lived every day on the street.