Posts Tagged ‘experience’

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!

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.


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.


The first clinic that Brett and I worked to open was the DeSales Free Clinic (check the Where Are We page for more information) in 2007. To the credit of the DeSales University faculty (long before I was a member), they made attending the Clinic a required part of the curriculum. This is no small feat and did not come without it’s share of controversy. In fact, many medical institutions who offer a homeless clinic experience do not require it but rather just make it available. There are a million reasons stated to take this approach- it is better to have people who really want to be there, the students are already so busy, it is really more of a club-type activity and the list goes on. However, academic research has shown that in the medical school and residency model, the greatest impact on the attitudes of students and fledgling practitioners about this population is seen in programs that require participation in the experience.

Early on in the life of the DeSales Free Clinic, I was going about my business of coaching students and seeing patients. One student in particular looked very uncomfortable. At first I thought it was just nerves. The clinic requires a team of first and second year PA students to see a patient as a team. This expectation is both exciting and obnoxiously intimidating for the students. This usually causes GI distress for 48 hours before the Clinic night in anticipation and 48 hours after the Clinic night as they ponder if they know anything at all. I assumed that student was panicking about repeatedly putting their stethoscope in their ears backwards.

I was wrong.

After the student continued to sweat uncontrollably for over an hour and looked as if they were on the verge of passing out, I pulled them aside and asked them if they were ok. Reluctantly, they told me they were terrified of being at the clinic with ‘these’ patients and had no idea how to relate to “them”.  They wanted to be helpful and they wanted to connect but in the students eyes, there was no common ground. They didn’t look the same, they didn’t act the same, they seemed to share no common experiences. Even their dentition was different. As the night had progressed, this young student had generalized this experience to mean they could never relate to any patient. Ever. The whole night was on the verge of catastrophe.

In my experience working with the homeless (and talking the ear off about homelessness of anyone who doesn’t have the good sense to stop me) I think this is a common feeling that becomes a barrier for getting involved at any level.  I have asked myself the question before too.

I grew up mostly in Kansas and Indiana. I am more familiar with tornados, farm land and suburbia than the inner city. I listen mostly to country music.  I don’t have a history of addiction or incarceration or abandonment. I say ya’ll and when I am tired, tend to sound more like a hillbilly than a college professor. I have parents that are still married after 41 years and always had plenty of love. It is not to say that there were never hardships and difficult times but a big difference is those struggles were conquered with the support of a loving environment. So, simply put, how do I relate? Where is the ‘street cred’?

Respect. Dignity. Humility. Authenticity.

It is really very simple.  When we treat people with respect and dignity, they appreciate it. They may not show it right away but they see it, they hear it and they feel it.  Often, in medicine we are told that the homeless are a ‘difficult population’ who never follow up and never follow through (usually accompanied by an eye roll or heavy sigh). This has not been our experience. In fact, one way our patients show us that they have felt the respect and have been treated with dignity is that they either come back to the Clinic or invite us back to their encampment- their home.

There are certain things in life that are exceedingly difficult to fake. Humility and authenticity are two of them. Most of my patients have experienced things that are unspeakable. I don’t know how they have walked on this Earth for all these years bearing these burdens of emotional (and often physical) trauma. And certainly, sometimes they are suffering the consequences of their own actions. But often, no one listens to them. They don’t listen to how they ended up sleeping on a friends couch. They don’t listen to how they ended up sleeping in their car, the woods or in a shelter. They don’t ask why they never took any of the medications they were discharged home on. They simply determine- by way of a sideways glance- that a persons homelessness is the rightful consequence of a mistake and simply cannot be helped.

Dr. Jim Withers (seriously, if you don’t know how he is- Google him) always says that we have to suspend our reality and step into our patients reality in order to truly understand how to help them.  Suspending reality takes some courage. Once you see the world through different glasses, it can be hard to ever see it any other way. Like the former lifeguard in me that cannot go to a swimming pool without constantly scanning the water for someone in trouble. However, if you are willing to take a journey into someone else’s life, you will be enlightened and only the can you really know how to help.


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