One cold January morning, as I pulled my car around the corner of my office building, I was struck by a memory of one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had in my practice with the homeless.
It happened on that very corner, four years ago today. I wrote about it in another blog I used to keep, and I reposting it here, with a few edits of poor writing.
I was heading to work and had just gotten a wicked speeding ticket from an extremely nice state patrolman. The 8:00 am wind was bitter. Cohiba dropped me off on the corner, and I was intercepted by a man in a dark blue jacket and blue scrubs. His phone was open and I could hear on-hold music through the receiver.
“Excuse me, do you work here?” he asked, interrupting my otherwise distracted thoughts. “Please help me; I… I don’t… I’m a doctor at Barnes Hospital and I was working last night. I got off at 4 am and was driving home, and I found a woman in the middle of 64,” (a six-lane highway that transects the city).
“I’ve been trying to get in touch with someone who can help,” he pointed helplessly at his unanswered phone, “and somebody told me to come here – that you’re a homeless shelter?” We’re not, but that wasn’t the point.
He said, “Come and see; she’s still in my car.” The wind was whipping around us furiously, and bitingly cold. His aimless chatter drifted back to me.
“I’m not a social worker, and I don’t know what to do. I picked her up and just drove around; she couldn’t talk. I didn’t know what to do, so I just drove. I went to Hardee’s and spent a few hours drinking coffee while she slept.” he rambled. “I’m going on no sleep, and I didn’t know what else to do.”
I tried to reassure him and he pointed again helplessly to his phone. “I heard that she can’t get into anywhere without a referral, I’m just…” he began.
We reached his car, and I couldn’t see her at first. He opened the driver’s side door, and then I saw a pile of coats slumped against the passenger door. He leaned in to wake her. “Maria? Maria?” and after several minutes, the pile shifted and she lifted her head.
He circled around to the passenger door and told her that he had found a place where she could receive help. Very groggy, she got out of the car and stumbled while trying to pull her too-big jeans up.
I asked her a few questions, but she had trouble answering them. I told her my name, and where she was. “Can we go somewhere out of the cold?” she asked, one of the first coherent things I’d heard her say.
I led her into the building, and the doctor followed, juggling his phone with a sandwich and coffee he had bought for her.
He hung up slowly; his eyes filling with tears. “Let’s exchange contact information in case you need to get a hold of me,” he said, “and let me have your card; maybe my wife can call you when she asks where I’ve been all night,” he joked mirthlessly.
I took his name and number and gave him my card. He turned away, and then whipped back around to face me. “Do you guys take donations?” he asked, catching me off guard. After I told him we did, he quickly pulled out his wallet and gave me several bills.
I didn’t really know what to say to this, after all he had just done for a stranger. I just thanked him, knowing that was inadequate. He didn’t say anything, but just stood staring blankly for a few seconds before turning to escape my office.
I caught up with him at the security lock and when we reached the top of the stairs, he slowed to a stop and turned to me, staring over my shoulder. Tears were again forming in his eyes, and he opened his mouth as though to speak. After a few minutes, he gave up and began to go downstairs. A few more steps. He again stopped and turned to me.
I don’t do this kind of thing,” he said softly, shaking his head. “I diagnose brain tumors in children, but I don’t…” he trailed off and went down a few more steps before stopping again. We stood silently for another minute, after which he quickly went the rest of the way and fled without another word.
After saying a few words of prayer of thanks for being able to witness such humble and selfless care of another human being, a stranger, I went back upstairs to check on Maria. As we were talking, she said “I don’t even know how that man found me,” having completely blacked out. She couidn’t believe when I told her “It was 4 am, and you were walking in the middle of the highway. He stayed up with you for the rest of the night until he found us and could get you help.”
After she left that day, I didn’t see her again. I hope she’s gotten help somewhere. When I remember this, I’m always struck by the thought of being in either of their shoes during this occurrence. How would I have handled seeing a person stumbling in the middle of the highway? Would I have stopped? Would I have spent hours after work taking care of her? If I was her, what would I have done after hearing what he did for me?