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.