One man, I’ll call him George, had required hospitalization for an infection that spread from a leg wound to his heart. When asked about the degree of pain in his chest he replied, “It’s much better than it was a week ago,” to which the nurse replied, “Great, you should be discharged soon.”
George replied, “But I’m homeless right now. I have nowhere to go.”
Only moments later when asked a similar pain question by the doctor, George replied, “The pain is still very bad.” No one visited George on my watch.
Roommate number two, Kenny, found himself in bed B due to uncontrolled high blood sugar. He slept through most daylight and when awake, sat on the edge of his bed staring at the wall. He told Charlie, the third patient, he had a 13-year-old daughter, but his wife wouldn’t let her come to the hospital. No one else came either. Kenny, at least, was being released to a shelter, thanks to the work of the ward social worker.
There’s no need to change Charlie’s name, really. He did that daily so I have no idea what his birth certificate reads. It's possible his fluid identity is a result of mental health issues, but it seems equally possible it's a simple form of entertainment to relieve the utter boredom of four and a half months in the same room.
“Housing first,” I overheard Charlie say at least twice a day. Each morning he and the doctor did the same verbal dance about stable health, no rooms available in the nursing home, and every effort being made on his behalf. Only one friend dropped by to chat with Charlie in those five days.
My father had over a half-dozen relatives taking turns to fill the area around bed D. At one point Charlie commented through the curtain, “You sure have a lot of people who care about you.” My dad replied, “I sure do.”
For too long I, like many North Americans, believed that poverty means a lack of material resources - a lack of housing, finances, safety nets, and back-up plans. But what about poor health, marital breakdown, family strife, and loneliness? Or lack of choices, opportunities, even hope?
It didn’t take long to learn that Dad's roommates suffer from far more than lack of suitable housing – evidence of broken relationships with family, friends, God, even themselves, abounds.
Upon discharge we gathered dad’s belongings and walked past Charlie sitting on the edge of his bed. Propped in a chair, directly across from him, leaned a pillow on which Charlie had drawn a large red smiley face. Charlie looked up, shot us a toothless grin and declared, “My visitor.”
As we box up the lights and glitter of the holiday season and settle into what can often feel like a bleak, post-party winter, I'm pausing to reflect on my experience in that hospital room and what it means for me, and maybe for you, this new year.
If loneliness is the profound form of poverty that it seemed to be for George, for Kenny, and for Charlie then I want to intentionally combat poverty this year in an unconventional way. I want to continue to reach behind those curtains that isolate, and invite others into relationship. I choose again this year to open my own life and be willing to let others in.
What about you? What's your definition of poverty, and how do you plan to fight it this year?
About Shelaine Strom: Author and life-coach Shelaine Strom has seen life. Learning from her own professional and medical challenges, she has taught career and life transitioning for nearly twenty years and helped thousands of people get back up on their feet. Shelaine currently serves as the Manager for Education & Professional Development at FH Canada.