Posts Tagged ‘medical school student’

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.

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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

As I do every Friday, I was rounding at one of our local nursing homes after precepting the night before at the DeSales Free Clinic. Friday mornings like these are always particularly challenging for me as I am often struck not by the differences but by the similarities between the ‘underserved’ unsheltered/sheltered homeless and the ‘underserved’ elderly living out their days in a nursing home. Nursing homes are not all doom and gloom and depressed mental pictures of our loved ones wilting away just as caring for the homeless is not a fruitless effort bound for failure. There is actually a great deal of love taking place in both settings. Don’t believe me? On Friday, a long time patient in the nursing home suddenly took a turn for the worse. I frantically wrote orders for medications that I though would ease her transition out of this world. One hour and fifteen minutes later, my lovely patient left this world to another. She left so quickly that her family was not able to make it to her bedside in time. Instead, she was loved out of this world by a nurses aide and an activites assistant to the hymns of her childhood and recitations of her favorite passages from the Good Book. So often, we in medicine think that our only measure of success is cure. I solomnly object.

Last year, I saw a patient in the Free Clinic with one of my students. The student had done a great job seeing the patient, coming up with a reasonable plan and conveying it to me. The patient essentially had a terrible cold. No need for antibiotics or anything more than some OTC medications that we could provide. From my seat in the presentation area, I could see the patient out of the corner of my eye. He looked terrible. Not the “call an ambulance” terrible, but a weary-feverish-please-just-let-me-rest terrible. As we went into see the patient together, we realized he was in the emergency shelter which clears out no later than 8am. This man would wander the streets and try to find somewhere to rest until the shleter opened back up. Your daily goal of survival is rarely replaced with rest and recooperate. It turned out, this man had a car (eureka!). He also had a brother 1 hour north who was going to be away for the next week and had offered my patient the couch while he was away. The problem? The patient’s car needed antifreeze and he had no money.

As we returned to the waiting room, I asked my student to share a memory about being sick and the things that helped him feel better. Then i asked him to remeber how sick he felt and picture not eating or drinking and then walking around or sitting in 20 degree weather while the wind slaps your face as if to remind you of your worthlessness. Before we learned the patients social situation, we of course knew that we couldnt cure his cold. Most viruses are just a test of our patience since more of the things we give for comfort only work marginally well at best. But we were nonetheless ready to arm him with Mucinex, Robitussin, Motrin and anything else we thought would help. In reality, what he needed more, was rest. And the best way to get him rest, was to get him antifreeze. On the way home from clinic that night, I bought him two large containers of antifreeze and dropped them back off the next morning where a very greatful patient awaited and at last would get a good nights sleep.

In street medicine, as with the nursing homes, we cannot simply cure the root cause that landed our patients in ther current surroundings. It is the complex fabric of their lives and health that have to be carefully understood before real comfort -and perhaps cure – can be achieved. This can be a real challenge to newcomers to these areas of medicine. There is a potential for new providers to become frustrated and overwhelmed and run for the hills while wildly flapping their arms screaming about the unfairness of it all. What we find in street medicine is that often the cure comes from the comfort. The brokenness cannot be cured with pills. It can only be cured with comfort. Comfort doesnt’t take money, doesn’t take insurance (thank God) and doesn’t take a master’s degree. It actually takes something much more valuable. It takes tenacity mixed with vulnerability to go there with your patient. To a place that is raw and uncomfortable and can chalkenge you in ways you never thought possible. To a place where we celebrate the small victories and push on when set backs occur. In many ways, this is what our patients need more than anything else. Belief that they are actually worthy of something better than this.

“Sometimes it’s easy to walk by because we know we can’t change someone’s whole life in a single afternoon. But what we fail to realize is that simple kindness can go a long way toward encouraging someone who is stuck in a desolate place.” – Mike Yankoski