The day was not promising to be easy. Ice had hardened the snow on the streets of our little town in a chunky mass. Tree limbs were falling from the sudden weight of the ice. They popped like fireworks and fell with no other warning. The bus that usually houses our crew of volunteer healthcare providers and all of our supplies was inaccessible, frozen behind the bay doors of the auto mechanic’s shop. Even my phone was dead.
A church downtown had offered to let us set up a wound and foot care clinic in their basement. Nurse Karen picked me up with the supplies I could scrounge. Our drive to the church was a little unnerving. Neither of us questioned our mission though. It was our day off and here we were, heading downtown again to answer the call. What else do you do?
I was met by a surprisingly robust group of volunteers. Some walked. Some took the bus. Some had inched along the city streets in cars that slipped in the black ice. Last time we faced such weather, a handful of us served the few patients that were willing to brave the cold. We walked to places we knew unhoused people had tucked in. We shared hand warmers, 1st aid supplies and hugs. This time, we were able to offer more.
Dr. Dave stayed with the team stationed in the church’s basement. I expected only a few stragglers. I was wrong. Word had gotten out. Our intake manager reported close to 20 patients were served that day.
Dr. Bruce and I hit the streets. We grabbed a bag of medical supplies and stomped out through the snow. I was looking forward to this outing. Normally, I am doing my clinic manager impersonation. I flit from task to task trying to fill in where my staff needs me. I don’t get much time to get to talk to my staff for more than a few minutes.
I love Occupy Medical’s crew. They are talented, dedicated and loving. I have not, in the last 2 years, had a week go by in which at least one of my crew members doesn’t do something absolutely amazing. I am lucky that way. I expected to be inspired again by the conversation on our walk.
Dr. Bruce is an idea man. We did some problem solving along the way. This man was innovative. We were thinking “outside the box”. We tried to figure out ways to adapt to the changing face of healthcare. We laughed and made jokes. By the time we got to the first homeless camp, named Whoville, the conversation had gotten somber again.
Whoville takes place in a gravel abandoned lot between downtown and the university district. It is a “squatter’s” camp. The city keeps threatening to throw them out even though they have an organized collective that has managed to get donated bathrooms and a hand washing station which is regularly cleaned. There is garbage and recycling service. There is a tent for the kitchen, one for sorting and storing donated goods, and one for the volunteer CNA who also keep track of the first aid supplies. It is actually pretty impressive.
Dr. Bruce and I announced our presence and asked if any one had need of a doctor. A woman in a wheelchair pulled us aside and I waited as Dr. Bruce wrote her information on a chart. I was serving as his “sherpa” today. I hauled supplies and introduced him to familiar faces. As I waited for him to finish helping the patient, I struck up a conversation with another Whoville occupant.
A bearded man sat by the fire, warming his feet. The soles of his feet started to steam and I warned him to move them before his shoes were damaged. He put them down and thanked me. He told me he had to watch it because he hadn’t felt his feet for a while. I paused. This was not a good sign.
I asked him the last time he had taken off his shoes and looked at his feet. It had been a while. He obliged me and unlaced his boots. The thin cotton socks peeled off with some difficulty. I was not happy to see how white his feet were but there was not ready sign of frostbite. Something else was going on. This was another patient for Dr. Bruce.
The bearded man waved me off, “I’m fine. I’m fine. Don’t trouble yourself with me.”
I told him that since we are here already, it was no trouble. He looked at me for a minute, searching my face for something to trust. He leaned back in his camp chair. It was clear he was willing to give us a try.
As Dr. Bruce spoke with the bearded man, more volunteers showed up. People brought soup, boxes of warm clothing, broken branches for firewood. Each person was greeted warmly. Each donor left with a smile.
I watched a camp resident scoop hot chicken soup into a bowl. He was an unhoused vet. He was trying to regain the weight he lost during chemotherapy. He too asked for nothing. He was just happy to be alive.
I felt I had very little to give. I was just glad to be there, in the snow, with people that kept a sharp eye on life’s priorities. Dr. Bruce and I had a few more people to help before we headed back on our walk through the icy streets. It wasn’t easy but what else do you do?