Archive for December, 2015

Gift giving.  Tis the season for the imagry of Christmas presents under a carefully decorated tree or eight stacked presents to represent the eight nights of Hanukkah. Having small children seems to make the season especially charming. But admittedly, sometimes this season can be challenging for people who work in the homeless community. The contrast between the haves and the have-nots is often stark and blinding.  All providers and advocates have to find that delicate balance in their lives between doing the work and going home to a life that is in such contrast to the life of our friends on the street.

We recently introduced a ‘vulnerable population curriculum’ to the PA students at DeSales. We talked about homelessness (of course!), global health, refugees, human trafficking and spent a lot of time challenging them to think about what it means to be ‘vulnerable’ and how that affects health.  During a series of reflection papers, a student exclaimed that he liked these activities but they were so depressing- who knew of all the things happening in the world. For a moment (or perhaps longer), he wished to live in the world where he eyes were still closed.

His comments though, really made me think.  How is it that there are people who chose jobs in which they take on the burdens of others. A friend who works in Oncology gets asked often – “how can you work in that office! It must be so depressing!”.  Many clinicians have occasional patients who have a story that will stop you in your tracks. Their story tends to haunt you for a few days before enough ‘regular stories from regular people’ wash away the traces of horror you felt a few days before.  But what about people who take on the horrors and traumatic experiences of many individuals at the same time. I think about people like Mother Theresa or Jack Prager ( who has been doing street medicine since the 70s in Calcutta, India) or Jim Withers (father of street medicine in the US).  The things they have seen and heard, the grief they have shared with their patients all while maintaining sanity, faith in humanity and a wicked sense of humor (especially Dr Prager!).  And somehow, seeming to find themselves in the midst of the chaos.

The word compassion derives from com- meaning ‘together’, and pati- meaning ‘to suffer’.  I often interview candidates for PA school admission who describe themselves as ‘compassionate’. When I ask what they mean by this, they usually answer that they are caring or empathetic. It isn’t a completely wrong answer but it isn’t completly right either.  There is a difference between feeling sad for someone and suffering with someone. And frankly, one is more exhausting than the other because it makes us vulnerable too. I think that much of the work we do in street medicine and with vitims of human traficking calls on providers to suffer with another person. And honestly, sometimes it isn’t easy. Often what is spoken about ones experiences have never been said to another soul.  It is a fragile truth that often can begin to free the speaker from the guilt and shame that comes with holding a secret for so long. I think some people, like Jack and Jim and many others, have been given the gift of suffering. An ability to see a world that has been so cruel to people but still resolve in the hope that exists for each them.  It is in these examples that we look to find the gift of suffering within ourselves. Each relationship is an opportunity to do more than just listen and leave, but to share, survive and hope with our friends.

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