Sunday, February 11, 2007

Burgers in the Alley

Like all ERs, the one where I volunteer has its share of frequent fliers: patients who come in repeatedly, either because they have chronic medical conditions or because they have no insurance and use the ER for primary care. Staff members get to know these patients; they're fond of some, and roll their eyes whenever others show up.

In the winter, we see an increase in the number of homeless patients, some of whom are frequent fliers anyway. I once saw a group of EMTs, after hearing a radio description of a homeless patient being brought in by ambulance, taking bets on the patient's identity. They thought they'd recognized him just from the paramedic's description of his complaints. And sure enough, when he arrived, he was the person they'd been expecting, and they greeted him warmly (if in somewhat amused tones).

Some staff grumble that homeless patients come to the hospital in the winter just to have a warm place to stay the night, and maybe some food. Even if that's true, it seems to me that if you're homeless in two feet of snow -- especially if all the shelters in town are full -- a warm bed may be as essential to your survival as breathing treatments or cardiac drugs are for other patients. Homeless patients, it seems to me, come to the ER because they want to stay alive, which (after all) is why most of the other patients are there, too. At the same time, I'm sympathetic to staff frustrations over limited resources, and to the unpleasantness of dealing with patients who often have very ripe odors, sometimes combined with bad manners.

Several years ago, a young tech who was heading off either to nursing or med school (I forget which) told me a wonderful story about her relationship with a homeless frequent flier. One evening after dark, she left the hospital to buy dinner for her co-workers. Coming back with a huge bag of hamburgers, she took a shortcut through an alley between two buildings, only to find her way blocked by a very scary homeless man who demanded, “Where are you going with all that food?”

The tech was terrified, convinced that she was about to be mugged for her hamburgers. But then another homeless man, someone she recognized from the ER, popped out of the shadows and made the first man back down. “You leave her alone!” said her rescuer. “She works at the hospital, and she was nice to me when I was there!”

She made it back to the hospital safely. I didn't ask if she'd given her rescuer a hamburger, but I hope she did.

If this incident hadn't really happened, it would sound like a fable, wouldn't it? Something by Aesop, with people instead of animals? And, of course, the moral would be: Sometimes good deeds really are rewarded.


  1. Every time I read your blog, I feel more connected with so many important things. Thank you.

    You make me want to find a way to volunteer as a chaplain even though I don't have the space to do another unit of CPE this year.

  2. Good observation... remember always that as we do to the least of these.....

    How would I submit my honeybun story to grand rounds? I'm still kinda new to blogging. Thank you for you comments.

  3. Rachel -- You may be able to find a way to volunteer without doing CPE (that's what I've done!).

    Tig -- Here's this week's call for submissions:
    I think you've already missed the deadline (midnight Sunday CST), but Grand Rounds will be posted on Tuesday, and next week's host is usually mentioned in there somewhere. I always link to Grand Rounds, so you can come here to check it out. Grand Rounds and Change of Shift (the nursing blog carnival) are responsible for at leat half of my site traffic: they're a great way to get more visitors and comments, and meet interesting folks!

  4. P.S. I just got back from the hospital, and I'm so tired that I didn't even think to do a hyperlink for the GR Call for Submissions. Duh!

    Here it is!

  5. One of the many advantages of working night shift is that we have the luxury of space and there have been many a night where we have let patients homeless or not, spend the entire shift instead of going home or back out into the rain at three in the morning.

    Susan, you just stimulated an idea for a blog post - thanks!

    And thanks for the mention of Change of Shift to your commenter!

  6. Mary Lu4:20 PM

    Long long time ago when I was a healthcare newbie I was told to be sure when I walked around campus, especially at night, to wear my nametags out in the open-- the reason was the homeless and the gangs respected the hospital staff and left us alone--

    So I did.

    About 20 years later, I was walking to my car one night when someone ran by and tried to steal my purse. Before I could scream "NO!" 3 of the local homeless who knew me came out of the woodwork to my rescue. One ran after the attacker, another went and got the campus police coming down the street, and the other made sure I got into a building and stayed with me until the police came.

    Why? Because they saw my nametag and knew I who I was and that worked at the hospital. As one of the guys said... "Miss Marrylu, We don't take kindly to anyone hurtin' folks who try to be nice and help us." I thanked them, but was totally in shock.

    The police made sure I got to my car-- with my purse intact. I thanked the police officers and then realised it was 3 degrees below outside-- I took the $25 I had in my purse and gave it to the cops, and made them promise me they would go find the guys and buy them a hot dinner and see if they could get them into the Mission tonight. They said they would.

    The next morning about 8 AM, when I got to work, I found carefully wrapped newspaper around a simple bouquet of flowers on my desk with a note saying "thank you fur carin'"

  7. Mary Lu -- Wonderful story! Thank you so much for posting it! If you don't have your own blog, may I post this comment as an actual entry on mine, so more people will read it?


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