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The Shelter

Monday, February 18, 2013

Today I travelled to The Shelter, where several students in my year perform blood pressure and general health screenings for the residents. They sit packed on long benches at tables before two small TV screens at the front of the room. Sometimes students from the FSU College of Music play in quartets for the residents, but usually there’s a game on for all, even those huddled far in the back, who sip their community coffee and squint to see the screens.
Some people chat with one another, brothers of a common daily struggle to survive that is a part of life. Some sit with tormented eyes, staring at something that only that person can see. This disturbed me the first time I attempted to ask one if they’d like a health check, but I felt safe enough to ask away. Sometimes these people answer, but more often than not a friend (or something) will pipe up for the person and decline. Citizens of the streets are more in-tune to mental illness than I am as a first year medical student, I think. They know when an illness signals danger, or is merely a prisoner of a wandering mind.
Today we arrived to find a camera crew stationed in front of the colorful, painted Shelter. I noticed more activity stirring outside on this cold February day than usual. The residents normally stay inside, but at the bus stop next door a large black man with an angry glare stared at us as we approached the other students and the Doctor overseeing us this evening. The man was surrounded by several other streetlings, including an elderly woman whom several scraggly others helped hoist her and her walker onto the bus as I watched.
“So here’s the situation,” the Doctor started, and somehow I knew the news wasn’t good. “There have been rumors of abuse, particularly of women and children, staying at this shelter. A woman at a nearby mission that helps these people decided to go undercover in a wig and see what it’s like to stay here for a night.
Well, apparently she was subjected to a lot of abuse by the employees. Several times men came up and propositioned her saying, ‘You shouldn’t stay here, why don’t you come home and stay the night with me?’
Well the woman felt very threatened that night, and finally she called the cops. She wrote about all of this in a blog that was posted in the Tallahassee Democrat that was published a few days ago. Several of the Doctors at the school, particularly our women’s physicians, have spoken about this and think that it’s best that we stay out of the political hayday, for now.
We have also discussed in the past how much of an influence we really have for these people. I mean, we come in, take a few blood pressure screenings, and then send them off to other clinics to get checked up.’
I’d followed him up until this point, but at this statement I was taken aback. I kept listening.
‘Really all these people care about when they show up is a clean meal, a shower, and a bed. So we’re going to meet and reevaluate what we can do from here.’
I’d listened to all of this with a feeling of utter grief and sympathy, to the point that my chest felt really constricted inside. As we walked away, I looked at all the people that had accumulated by the bus stop.
Where do you go when your only reliable shelter in town has been closed? How desperate must you be to subject yourself and your young children to abuse every night, for the sake of a scrap of food and lukewarm tea, when it’s the only thing to keep you warm inside?
So now you get shoved out with the rest before sundown, with some of the dankest miscreants and nighttime scum of the streets.
I feel personally betrayed by humanity. On the flipside, how low must you get to abuse someone who is already as low as it gets, who is just trying to breathe a little for the night, getting a few hours of sleep before the brutal cycle begins all over again?
This is where the scrapings of humanity get lost down the dingy drains of town. And as we drove away, I watched several people bundled in layers of mismatched jackets and scarves scatter away together, and it was like watching the very beginning of humanity: hunter-gatherers, looking for the next source of food and brief respite in a world of carnivores.
Even more startling, I watched was a man in a wheelchair across the street tensed up, almost falling out of his chair, and for a moment I couldn’t believe my eyes. Four people were gathered around him, trying to hold him in. I’d never seen a seizure. I’d only watched videos of a grand mal attack in neuroscience last semester. And low and behold, as the light turned green and I panicked, wishing that I was driving, knowing that even if I did ask the driver to pull over that there was little any of us could do, every muscle in his body became taught, and starting with a rhythmic whirling of his arms, he slowly started to seize. He must have been 40-50 years old, wheelchair-bound. And his friends/family/whoever did all that they could to support him.
They are better than I. For we drove on back to school, and I have done nothing.
I disagree with the physicians who claim that we have little impact. Perhaps this is a little selfish, but I would want to continue because of the impact they’ve had on ME. I met Chance, a UF fan who always bantered with me about the FSU-UF rivalry and has accepted me because he knows I’m dating a gator. He always remembered me every week. I met a man who had written and carried along with him in his small pouch over a hundred different hymns that he had composed himself. I met an ex-pastor for whom life had taken a dramatic downturn, and said he prayed for a reason for all of this. I met a man who could and did recite a 20+ line intense poem of sheer passion to me from straight memory.
All I did was bring my little colorful band-aid covered BP cuff and get practice. They gave me a glimpse of all they’ve got.
But I’d like to think that just talking, and understanding, those who fall through the gaps has an impact somehow on both of us.
I’m on this crazy doctor journey because a part of me wants to save the world. A part of me just can’t do anything else but try to help. And because a part of me is just saddened, and has a great deal of hope that I can be there to rectify wrongs that just shouldn’t take place.
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