Once In A Lifetime

It was in the summer of 1973 and I was living on Elati Street in Denver in a railroad duplex we were renting from a landlord who I seem to recall lived in Texas. There was at any one time 3-6 folks inhabiting the place. We had all recently relocated from Champaign, Illinois. The men all had homosexual tendencies, which for the most part were still in a state of unactualized potential and a couple of, I believe, straight women who were fluidly moving in and out of residence.

One of these women named Sue had recently checked out the hospital a few blocks to the east named at that time Denver General, now called Denver Health. She came home telling the mostly under-employed men in the household that the hospital was hiring several different positions and maybe we should check it out. I was at the time working down in Englewood at Craig Rehab hospital in their kitchen and having some minimal patient contact. Having no car it was a bus ride back and forth down Broadway and I was anxious for a more challenging change closer to home.

In August of that summer of 1973 I was hired as a hospital attendant at Denver General on the inpatient psychiatric ward, 4-West. The attendant staff was all male and all my co-workers conscientious objectors. I had avoided the draft by having a high lottery number and the good sense to not volunteer and end up possibly coming back to the States in a body bag from Viet Nam.

The attendant staff was all male I suspect to provide muscle for the all female nurses so I am not sure why I got the job being all of 145 pounds soaking wet in those days. This turned out to be my “once in a lifetime” decision that has given my professional life direction for the past 42 years. I am assuming that something that is once in a lifetime should have more impact that one’s usual run of the mill life happenings and this decision to wade into nursing was it for me. The duties of the attendants did include elements of what I call real nursing i.e. hands on interaction with clients. No advanced degree was necessary with the ability to communicate with people in distress being the main requisite of the job.

Back in the early 1970’s the mentally ill, especially the homeless mentally ill, had a much better chance of hospitalization rather than todays all too frequent option of incarceration. And so began my several decades of interacting with Denver’s most disenfranchised. I did detour for 10 years to what was then called Colorado General but in those days they actually served the indigent uninsured as part of their mission.  That hospital has also changed its named, moved to Aurora and now has TV ads featuring Peyton Manning. I find the tone and pitch of these commercials to be very off-putting but I will not explore that further at this time.

This personal lifetime of nursing is particularly poignant for me today since back on the 28th of November 2015 was my last day of work as a nurse at Denver Health. It was a long very busy 13-hour day in Urgent Care attending to many of the same type of folks and their issues as I was back in 1973.

I’ll close this piece with a couple things. First is that Colorado has the chance to vote on single payer health care in November 2016. We as a state currently have a very high rate of medically insured thanks in large part to accepting federal Medicaid support through the Affordable Care Act. Single payer would though be a great improvement in spite of this current commendable high-insured rate.

Secondly, I want to share a series of encounters I had with a homeless fellow I ran across on my walks into work my last two days on the job. The first occurred at 0600 on Friday the 27th. It was a cold snowy morning and this fellow was under a blanket on the Cherry Creek Bridge on Broadway just south of Speer Blvd. This is often a favorite spot for the homeless folks and he seemed bundled up and out of the wind so I proceeded to work thinking though I might see him later in Urgent Care.

At the end of my shift about 7:15 pm I walked home the same way and was surprised he was still in the same spot but now sitting up and still covered in his blanket. My assumption, perhaps wrong, was that he had spent the day out in the sub-freezing elements. I kept walking but after crossing Broadway I turned around thinking this is really not OK even for a seasoned homeless person.  I cautiously engaged him and he popped his head out of the blanket. He said he was OK that the blanket was warm. The next words out his mouth were to ask if I had a smoke. Despite the obvious health issues related to smoking to lecture him on this under the current circumstances seemed ludicrous. Instead I gave him the four bucks I had and encouraged him to walk the one block down to Denver Health where he could spend the night in the Emergency Department waiting room at least.

The next morning walking into work again I was stunned he was in the same spot. Still under his blanket, a thick coat and pretty good hat and rhythmic breathing quite noticeable. He was not lying directly on the pavement but still this could not have been comfortable. I have over the years encountered numerous homeless who prefer even sub-zero weather to the shelters for a variety of reasons. I decided I would walk home later the same way and if still there I would give him the $20 bucks I had. He was however not there in the evening and I wondered if he had walked down to the hospital or to a shelter or much more likely just moved on.

He had selected a spot out of the wind, temperatures in the high teens with lots of traffic and pedestrians within a few feet and he was reasonably dressed so I never thought the situation life threatening but if not careful frost bite could have been an issue for his toes at least. The greatest clothing need for homeless shelters is socks. I should have brought him a couple pairs from work. Since I walk central Denver a lot I plan to always venture out especially in wintertime with an extra pair in my bag.

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