Posts Tagged ‘DeSales University’

The Street Medicine Institute and I share a vision where all neighbors sleeping on the streets around the world will have access to healthcare in a location and manner acceptable to them. Over the last decade I’ve witnessed this vision inch closer in cities all around the world and I’ve had the honor to serve the most genuine and loving people you could imagine. I’ve witnesses the evolution of reality based medicine in the Lehigh Valley from in front of my backpack.  When the DeSales Free Clinic opened in 2007 it was the only healthcare being provided directly to the homeless in the area but now there are 10 clinics, a sprawling street presence, a medical respite and the ability to enter any hospital in search of our people. The communities as a whole has galvanized support and started a winter shelter in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton, where before there were none. If a new person is seen panhandling off any freeway within hours we are called with hopes we can provide some help to the person. Most often, the call comes from someone outside of the healthcare field who just wanted to do something to help. There is still much work to do but the community is strong and our team at LVHN is getting stronger every day supported by senior leadership that not only understands the mission, but has allowed our belief that everybody matters to infiltrate ALL patient care to the benefit of so many.

In December 2016 I was asked by Dr. Kevin Lohenry, the Director of the University of Southern California (USC) PA Program, to deliver the Keynote address for their White Coat Ceremony and for the first time in my adult life I witnessed the intense poverty and immense number of people sleeping rough on the streets of Los Angeles.  The streets look like a post-apocalyptic wasteland of humanity. As I stepped over the bodies using the streets as their living room, bedroom and outhouse on the same corner, I felt utterly useless to help them and needed to learn more. Over the subsequent months, Corinne and I met with the dedicated servants of the homeless in LA working for various agencies and FQHCs all sharing a common goal. Although the number of homeless has risen over 20% from the year prior, there was a palpable sense of renewal and drive to push harder. The citizens of LA felt the same way and voted to increase their own taxes with funds going to help the homeless. With the belief that, “an excellent private research university should take on the most intractable, multifaceted problems of our time,” the USC Provost, Michael Quick, announced that USC will play a large role in the effort to solve homelessness in LA. It seemed that the large number of rough sleepers in LA was only outpaced by unwavering desire to help them.

It is on this back drop that Corinne and I have made the decision to join the many incredible and talented servants trying so hard to help our neighbors experiencing homelessness in LA. In April, I will begin as the new Director of Street Medicine at USC.  Corinne will serve as faculty in the USC PA Program and will have time set aside for working with me on the street team and pursuing much needed research on the rough sleeping population. It’s our hope to contribute in our simple way to the complex work needed on the streets of LA. It’s our aim to further an understanding of our friends sleeping rough through research so that we may all better meet not just their needs, but help them renew their dreams as well. If we are to fulfill the vision that all people sleeping on our streets will have access to healthcare then there will need to be many more street medicine programs and providers throughout the world. There is no better training ground than LA, and no University more poised to dissect this issue. With this in mind, we will be working on the creation a pipeline of well-trained providers in the art and clinical acumen needed to practice street medicine properly will be created.

My time at LVHN serving the homeless in the community along-side so many special people has been the honor of a lifetime. I leave behind a team that I have no doubt will take great care of our patients and continue the work much better than I could ever have done.

We begin our work in LA with the blessing of obedience to HIS work. Not on a new mission, but a continuation of the same. He has given us the inspiration and grace to begin. As our mission moves forward, you will be able to follow our journey at streetmedicinela.org. Corinne and I humbly ask for your prayers as we continue our journey of walking with the homeless

Sincerely Yours,

Brett

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One of the phrases that will send most healthcare for the homeless providers into a hair-on-fire-tizzy is when a justification for allowing the continuation of homelessness in our cities is based on the concept that the homeless just don’t want the help. I can understand how this line of thinking evolves.  It has been said that the United States is the richest country in the world with the most resources to help its citizens. How, then, can we explain that people are still refractory to this wealth of money and resources. The rationalization, for both society and the individual, becomes to accept that some people just don’t want the help.  It is easier for us to go about our morning commute, our jog through town or our walk into work if we work it out this way in our minds.

A few months ago, I read a book by St. Francis DeSales entitled Finding God’s Will for You. St. Francis DeSales was known for his belief that ordinary people could live holy lives in their communities and did not need to be cloistered (as in a nun) or in a monastery, cut off from the rest of the world and it’s many challenges and temptations in order to live holy lives. In this book, he talks about God’s will being the sun and ourselves or our willingness to accept his will for us as a mirror.  At times, the mirror is small and only reflects a small amount of light.  It does not mean that the sun is small but rather it is our mirror that is small.  As we grow in acceptance of God’s will, our mirror grows and is able to accept and reflect more of the sun’s light until we are fully aligned with and accepting of God’s will.  I think of our friends on the street and their willingness to accept help in the same way. When we first meet them, the mirror is small. It may even be impossible to appreciate, made small by pain, suffering, hopelessness and rejection. Feeling unloved and incapable of being loved or loving another. Many times, I have been startled at the depth of shame carried around by our fellow brothers and sisters. But over time, the mirror grows as trust is built so that one day, a full reflection is possible. An acceptance of help, hope and possibility comes into view and value is restored.

We are often impatient with this process, wanting results and success to satisfy our own needs and desires for affirmation. Building a relationship can literally take years. I once watched a brilliant lecture by a colleague from Southampton, England who called it the One-Less-F***-Off. He described a patient who, upon eye contact would yell the magical phrase that sends most people away. No matter what he said, “F*** off” was the response.  Over years, the number for f*** off’s received diminished so that once, when our colleague didn’t visit him but rather visited a nearby street friend, the patient proclaimed “Hey, where the f*** have you been”. Success defined by the most peculiar matrix. But success none-the-less.

At the June 2017 National Health Care for the Homeless Council Conference, Jim O’Connell of the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program responded to an audience question with a reminder that we cannot erase the trauma that has happened to our patients prior to meeting them. The growth of the person is not about us, the provider, but rather about the return of this precious individual to their rightful value as they gaze upon and accept their own reflection.

~C

Last week, I was sitting in a leadership training about effective communication. The instructor started off with an explanation of the ladder of inference. This ladder represents stages of thinking that one goes through, often subconsciously, to determine action or inaction after observing a behavior. When we observe something, we often reflect back on the scenario to make sense of it and in doing so, may not remember all of the details (or even have all of the details). Our minds will fill in the blanks, or infer, what is missing to complete the observation so that it makes sense to us.  We determine action or inaction based on this conclusion. The example given to us was an observation of a quiet exchange between two people which concluded with one person abruptly leaving the conversation and exiting the building. We, of course, came up with a variety of colorful, and sometimes even logical, explainations for what we saw and action that should take place as a result. Sometimes this process leads to workplace drama, other times the inference ladder could be applied to whole populations resulting in dehumanizing sterotypes.

As Brett and I were talking with an old friend this week, we realized that the inference ladder had injected it’s influence on our life in a way that we did not realize until now.  I have written before about the influence of an experience Brett and I had during my PA school education at Midwestern University in which both of us spent time at Hesed House in Aurora, Il providing healthcare for the homeless. It was a meaningful experience that lead to the desire to start the DeSales Free Clinic, and eventually, LVHN Street Medicine. In our minds, Hesed House was providing comprehensive care with tons of hours of accessibility from students and volunteers. When we set out a decade ago to open the DeSales Free Clinic, we modeled it after our recollection of Hesed House. In reality, our blueprint for the vision of the DeSales Free Clinic was not Hesed House at all, but rather, the inference ladder at it’s best. A fill-in-the-blank Mad-Libs version of what we had experienced paired with what we thought was needed for the patients. Turns out inference might not always lead to poor communication or office gossip, but maybe every once in a while, a service to a population who is often dismissed as a result of the same thought process. Tricky tricky little ladder, I’m keeping my eye on you!

In September 2016, Brett and I traveled to Rome for the canonization of Mother Teresa into sainthood. In an effort to save money, we booked a local flat through AirBNB and lodged just two blocks from the Vatican. On our way back one evening, we crossed St. Peter’s square and, after passing two armed guards stationed at a government building, made a turn onto a side street close to home. The area near the Vatican has become a safe space for the homeless to sleep at night without harassment from the police. The local homeless service providers who generously shared their time, experiences and solutions with us tell us that this is a result of Pope Francis declaring that these souls should be left alone and allowed to rest without disruption. And so, to some local surprise, the local police have backed off and allow for some peace and quiet. As such, it was no surprise to see a doorway inhabited by an elaborate cardboard-bag-bottle structure skillfully designed to block light, noise and provide an astonishing amount of concealment for the person who was likely residing somewhere inside the materials. What caught our eye, however, was an inscription scrawled on the marble slab to the left of this construction – LOVE NEVER DIES. We stopped and took a picture of this remarkable image wondering who wrote the message and if the inhabitant of this doorway agreed or disagreed with the statement. We continued onto our flat and retired for the evening. Each night, we saw the same cardboard-bag-bottle construction with the same refreshed inscription, and each night we wondered.

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Three days later, we were walking back from the canonization mass. Anxious to rehydrate (it was about 92 degrees fahrenheit), use a bathroom (400am -2pm is quite a long time!) and to escape humanity for a minute (a sea of 500,000 humans is enough to make anyone need a quiet (padded) room), we nearly missed him. Our doorway dweller was awake, sitting up below the inscription and working on an elaborate drawing. Bathrooms, water and silence would have to wait. We made our way through the crowd and introduced ourselves. George, a man in his 60’s, had primarily inhabited this doorway for the last 6 years. A fisherman from Sweden, he had somehow been land ridden for some ambiguous reason. His drawings were remarkable. He had two completed charcoal drawings and was half finished with another one. All of the completed pictures contained a series of objects that were rearranged or drawn from a different angle. We explained street medicine to George and he engaged us in an interesting conversation about his experiences, affirmed that he had a doctor (however we discovered an access problem- his doctor was in Sweden), and how the heat of this summer had been particularly difficult for him. But it was his explanation of his drawings that moved me the most. The wooden truck was his favorite toy as a little boy, the canoe was his first fishing boat. A child sized fishing rod and small scaling knife were important pieces of his happy place. A pot for smoking fish lead me into a detailed conversation about how to properly prepare and cook fresh fish (fascinating for me considering I generally avoid eating things that originate from under the water). He said he draws to keep himself out of trouble. But I saw something much different. His drawings simply represented the happiest time of his life. A time when he was a young boy, falling in love with fishing and providing for himself. Before he spent 45 years at sea, had broken relationships with his family and had ended up, well, here. We purchased one of George’s drawings which hangs in a place of honor for him in our home. While he never explained why he writes his message next to his doorway everyday,  he really didn’t need to. He retains a sense of hope that one day the tides will shift and he will find his way home again, perhaps to the place in the picture.
He agreed to take a picture with us (which you can see below) and thanked us for keeping him company. As we walked away, George asked us to promise not to forget him. Promise made. Promise kept.

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A few weeks ago, Lehigh Valley Health Network and the Street Medicine Program hosted two events with Dr. Jim Withers, a pioneer of street medicine in the United States, to raise awareness about homelessness to different groups in the Lehigh Valley. The first night was a small gathering of donors at a local country club with Dr. Withers as the featured panelist along with Brett and Dr. Motley, chair of the Community Health Department at Lehigh Valley Hospital.  It was a fascinating discussion about how street medicine in many cities has uncovered an ugly truth; that healthcare itself is very, very sick.  Often times the Street Medicine provider straddles two worlds. A world of middle class America and a world of extreme poverty and isolation. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we expect all patients to be functioning at the top of the pyramid in a place that Maslow defined as self-actualization. That is the place where people are achieving or are on their way to achieving their highest potential.  Because this is the basic assumption for all of those interacting with the healthcare system, it is no wonder that conscious or unconscious bias seeps in to our everyday patient interactions.  The traditional healthcare systems gets frustrated with those patients who just don’t or can’t follow through. We label them as non-compliant and design policies that allow us to dismiss patients from our practices after two no call no shows or after being late for an appointment a few too many times. Because after all, our clinical time is important and if we allow ‘them’ to be late then we are just enabling them.

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The homeless population and their interaction with the healthcare system is an example that can be applied to many other vulnerable populations who are expected to be functioning at the tip of Maslow’s pyramid. Domestic violence, gender dysphoria, substance abuse, financial instability and recent prison release are all examples of people are struggling to have their basic needs met. It was interesting to see and talk with the attendees at the conclusion of the panel discussion. Many of them have lived in this area their entire lives and never fully understood how and why this type of human condition was lurking in their own backyards. Perhaps the best part of the evening came from the country club bartender who spoke with me, Brett and Dr. Withers after the room had mostly cleared.  He shook our hands and told us that in his job, he listens to a lot of very boring presentations (and I believe him) but he was so grateful to have listened to this panel discussion.  He felt he had learned so much and went on to tell us about the homeless people he had known in his life and how he thought they may have ended up that way. Of all the people in the room, it seemed that perhaps the unsuspecting bartender had been one of the main benefactors of the event.

The following day, Dr. Withers gave grand rounds at the Hospital. Over 200 people RSVP’d to the event and the crowd was primarily full of short and long white coats.  At the conclusion of Dr. Withers discussion, a panel of currently or formerly homeless Lehigh Valley residents shared their stories of living on the streets, surviving on the streets and in our institutions and candidly shared how things could have been better.  One panelist has been unsheltered for over 9 years and shared that the Street Medicine team are the only people he knows that are not homeless.  This spoke to me particularly as I was reminded of the isolating nature of homelessness and the sense that the world can become ‘us’ and ‘they’ with seemingly very few bridges between. As I sat and listened, I noticed how absolutely silent it was in the room.  There was not a single pager ringing, phone buzzing or hushed side-conversation. Several hundred people who usually conversate all day were hanging on every single word these brave men and women shared.  I thought about how intimidating the room must have looked from the panelist table and that for years, the patients felt like no one listened to them. And yet, here we were, begging in earnest for them to tell us their stories. The power of this paradox is in its irony. Healthcare providers have an opportunity every day to listen to our patients stories. Not just the story of their symptoms. But THEIR story. We feel pressured to rush, to ‘work lean’, to make in through but in the end, that isn’t what anyone wants. Each time I see a room full of such talent hear the message of street medicine and the stories of its patient’s, I can’t help but feel the pull of a tide. That perhaps we are closer than we think to a return to the roots of good medicine and real connections with all of our patients.

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.

Sitting on a tarmac outside of the Newark NJ airport, I am trying to wait patiently for my plane to take off. I hear mostly white noise as people are shuffling to their seats and stuffing oversized bags into small overhead compartments. I look to my right and see a recent DeSales PA Program graduate sitting a few seats away. In the midst of our boarding process, I hear words being shared about street medicine and homelessness to the unsuspecting middle seat passenger. In 6 hours, Seth could have her convinced to attend the 11th Annual International Street Medicine Conference with us.

 

While I don’t often spend much time reflecting back on progress over time, I find that preparing for conferences like these tends to send me back to a time when I knew less in both knowledge and people. Two years ago, Brett and I attended our first International Street Medicine Symposium in Boston. We had read so much about the world-renowned Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) founded and flourished by Dr. Jim O’Connell. I had followed their website for years and had a visit to BHCHP on my bucket list for years. (Hey, some people sky dive, I visit homeless programs.) The opportunity presented itself for this visit with just a few weeks notice. Generous support from both of our sponsoring institutions (to let us go) and family (to keep our kids) allowed Brett and I to travel that Fall to Boston. It was the first time we were able to see a mature and robust healthcare for the homeless program and see first hand how something like that is grown and cultivated over time. Each member of BHCHP seemed to share the vision that had begun more than 20 years before. They were motivated, enthusiastic and committed. At a dinner reception after the first day, Brett and I met Dr. Jim O’Connell for the first time. He was genuinely interested in our small but eager programs. I mentioned that the DeSales Free Clinic has an operational budget of about $18,000. I’ll never forget his response. “You do all of that with $18,000? I have a multimillion dollar budget. It sounds like I have something to learn for you.” I was dumbfounded. You? Learn something from me? It sounded laughable ( and still does) but he was sincere. And a reflection of how all Street Medicine Programs are treated by their peers. This type of interaction has been repeated many times over as street medicine programs come from all over the world, once a year, to learn, share, eat, drink and be merry. Dr. Jim Withers of Operation Safety Net (Pittsburgh, PA) once told me that he thinks that people at this conference and his patients sometimes understand him better than his family. (True)

Now, we are heading to San Jose (CA) for this years conference. Our programs have grown exponentially since that first trip to Boston. So many ideas were illuminated, so many seeds planted. We are travelling with 8 other street medicine team members- 2 University of South Florida SELECT medical students, 2 DeSales University physician assistant students, 2 recent graduates of the DeSales PA Program, LVHN Street Medicine’s new case manager and new clinical coordinator. It is hard to imagine the life trajectories that can change when armed with the knowledge that comes from conferences like these. Brett and I sometimes joke that it feels like you are going away to camp. The time is short, the bond is strong.

Caterpillars are not particularly ferocious creatures. Slow and steady and according to my children, very hungry. I am not even sure that they make any noise at all. Or, come to think of it, have any teeth. They do their thing in their unassuming way and eventually make it to butterfly utopia. Silently and without bells or whistles, they make the world a more beautiful place. I have often marveled at the way passion can turn an otherwise quiet and unassuming human into a bull in a china closet. I am certain you have witnessed this phenomenon and it can happen to any of us. Once, while sitting in an ethics lecture some years back, a girl who I had never heard even speak suddenly found her voice and schooled the room about the seemingly double standard in the world regarding when life begins. Looking around, her point had not only been made, but her peers were blown away by the passion that was residing within her.

Advocates for many causes are much like the girl I just described. I remember a neighbor I had who loved animals. She always had a foster animal that she was rehabilitating for adoption. She would spend hours nursing the animal back to health. Once, I got up to go to the bathroom late at night only to glance out the window and see her sitting beneath a porch light picking fleas out of a sad lump of fur. I didn’t understand it then, but I do now. For some people, it is animals or organic food. The environment or breast cancer or autism or homelessness. World hunger, toxic waste or children in Africa. The cause is different but the root is the same. All causes need passion like this. It is what inspires other people to give two rats patooties about something they otherwise couldn’t care less about. I often think that I relate more to people who are passionate about SOMETHING (even if I fall into the rats patootie category about the cause) than those who are indifferent about EVERYTHING.

I am often asked how we do it all. I can see the look in people’s eyes as they ask the question. It is a third happy, a third bewildered and a third concerned. They know we have many clinics and homeless responsibilities. I myself work one full time job and two per diem jobs in addition to my obligations to the homeless. We have three children and other community responsibilities. I know why they are worried and why I am not. The answer is simple. I am compelled. I know that it is not I who is in charge of this master plan. Tenui nec dimmitam- latin for “I have taken hold and I will never let go.” This phrase reminds me to breathe easy, let it go (not the Frozen kind) and have courage.

Caterpillar roar.

I’ve never given a eulogy before. While preparing for his, I realized I really didn’t know much about him, but felt I understood him. The two words that best described him were courage and character. Not usually the first two words that come to mind when picturing a man who made his home in a drainage pipe for almost 5 years. He never left because he said, “It was a good spot.” In fact, none of the homeless providers knew who he was until the day he came into our hospital complaining of abdominal pain. At the time, it seemed like his life was finally turning around. He had a job. After months of trying, he got a job which required an almost 10 mile walk each way daily. He was saving his money and had an apartment picked out closer to his work so he could, “walk to it,” which always made be chuckle when he said it.

“Courage” describes him so well because the day I met him (in the hospital) was the day I told him he had a terminal illness and only a few months to live. He smiled his crooked smile that I would see so much over the next few months, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Well, I guess that’s the way it goes….. What do I do now?” At first I wasn’t sure he understood what I just said so I repeated it and his reaction made me understand that he did understand, and simply had a degree of bravely rarely seen. He asked me what they would do with him after he dies. I honestly wasn’t sure so I asked what he would like us to do. He said all he wanted was a box with a cross on it but nothing else. He also told me he was Catholic but hasn’t attended church in about 15 years and wanted to know if it was ok to see a priest.

We told some of the local landlords about his situation and helped with getting an apartment for $250 a month so he wouldn’t have to spend his last days in the drainage pipe, no matter how good of a spot it was. He saw me at least weekly in the soup kitchen and was visited by our hospice nurse much more often in his new apartment. We also arranged for him to go into our inpatient hospice unit whenever he wanted, even if it meant his stay could last months, which isn’t the normal procedure for an inpatient hospice unit. He said he would stay out as long as he could so the people who were sicker than him could have the bed. By making that decision, it meant he would continue to struggle finding food daily, walking miles to different soup kitchens even as he grew weaker. I soon learned that his weekly walk to see me at the soup kitchen was the barometer he used to tell him when it was time to enter the hospice unit.

As time went on he grew so weak he could no longer make the walk to see me, was vomiting all food and drink, and was even having trouble getting around his apartment. Also, the heat broke in his apartment—in January—which he said didn’t bother him because he still had a bed and 4 walls, which is more than he had the last 5 year. With his nurses help, we convinced him to go to the hospice unit and he agreed. He wouldn’t go until he cleaned his apartment, packed up all his belongings, and took it to the shelter to give them to someone who needed them. We tried to talk him out of the strenuous task of cleaning when he was barely able to walk but he wouldn’t hear of it. The landlord was so nice to rent to him at such a low price he couldn’t leave the apartment dirty, he said. When I think of his strong character, I consider that for a man who had so little in life, and was now so close to death, his biggest concerns was for the sicker people in the hospital than he, the other homeless who were more in need of clothes than he, and not violating the trust of his landlord who first showed trust in him.

While delivering my eulogy I looked out in the full seats in the funeral home and was struck by how many people he brought together. All of his caretakers and an old acquaintance from high school came to say goodbye with a priest presiding in front of his beautiful box with a cross adorning the top. In the end, he got all he wanted, and we received a lesson of a lifetime.

-BF

Tonight, I was playing mommy referee mediating yet another squabble between by two daughters. They are 23 months apart and like most siblings love and hate each other with 150% effort.  While I am sure repeating myself over and over must sink into their brains somewhere, sometimes I bore myself with the repetition. After the one millionth melt down in the course of 45 minutes, I finally said “Girls! You are a mirror to each other! What one does, the other will also do! If you want to be treated nicely, be nice!” They kind of looked at me like I had three heads. But then started to smile, then giggle, then run off to play pretending to be each other’s mirror and see what they could make the other do in response.

It reminds me of a patient I saw last week for the first time. I am fairly new to one of our local nursing homes so I am sure the staff there hasn’t been notified for my love of homeless patients. That would be the reason for ‘ the warning ‘. I am sure the staff member meant it to be an act of comradery. Give the new girl a heads up. She went on to tell me that my new patient was homeless (followed by an eyeroll) and had AIDS (“of course”) and had the audacity to spend 20 minutes in the shower while she was waiting to start his treatments (sigh, huff, puff). “Good luck with that one!” she said. I thumbed through the 9 million un-useful pieces of paper that had accompanied the patient from the hospital and came across a psychiatric consult that stated the patient lacked the capacity to make his own decisions.  A rather big deal in the medical world that essentially means the patient lacks insight into consequences and can’t be trusted to make their own treatment decisions. It was also particularly relevant to this man since he had tried to sign out of the nursing home against medical advice earlier that day- something that is not allowed if you can’t make your own decisions. Trust me – that only added to his popularity.

I hung out with this patient for over an hour. We talked family, hobbies (a guitar player since age 12), his HIV mode of transmission (not IV drug use as the chart had stated), his medical history (he knew all of his providers names from his previous residence and their phone numbers), wishes and concerns. I asked him about the psychiatric assessment to which he responded “If you’re and asshole to me, I’m an asshole to you.” He went on to describe the interaction with the doctor and how he knew what to say to make ‘that dude disappear’. “It’s really not that hard to be left alone. People don’t want you and so you don’t want then nether.”

His interactions with me were far different than what had been described or documented in his medical chart. There are many reasons for this to have been and I don’t presume that it is all chalked up to my comfort talking about things that, for many providers, are uncomfortable. But I do think that we can become somewhat childish in our interactions. The patient throws up a barrier, then we throw up a barrier. Then the patient pushes our buttons, then we retreat from the interaction. And before you know it, this relationship is going nowhere. And the patient will soon be “non-compliant with a history of multiple no call/no shows”.

Why? Just look in the mirror.

~CF