America's Treatment Of Our Most Vulnerable Citizens Needs Improvement, So Let's Get To It

by Christine Burke
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As the city street around me bustled with activity, I stared up at the sky, warm sunlight hitting my face. My stethoscope hung heavy around my neck, and my feet ached from 10 of 12 working hours I spent on my feet. I watched the taxis whiz by impatiently and the commuters hastily rushing along the street, looking smart in their suits and requisite black wingtips. I breathed in the warm spring air and looked to my patient, also resplendent in the sun.

He was dying of heart failure, measuring his life in hours and days, having months ago said goodbye to the promise of a life measured in years.

That morning, as I received my assignment, I rolled my eyes when I heard that he was on my patient list. A “frequent flier,” he was well known to our staff and had a bitter, angry disposition. He often scared new nurses with his sharp tongue and his was the call light that was never dark. His pillow wasn’t right, his dinner was too cold, his sheets didn’t cover his feet. Always with a demand, he’d earned a reputation as “highly difficult” on our floor.

And I now had to spend 12 hours with him, catering to his whims, trying to make him comfortable in his dying days. I dreaded going into his room because I was certain it would be a long day of insults and bitter words flung in anger. My suspicions were confirmed when I entered his room, and he immediately barraged me with a list of demands in a hostile tone. His room was dark, the bedside table was cluttered, and as I looked at him closely, frail and angry in his bed, his body no longer his own, I saw fear in his eyes.

I quietly set about straightening his room, opening the shades and helping him to get comfortable in his bed. He muttered about his daily annoyances, and it was then I realized that his complaints were merely a way to get people to stay in his room. He was afraid of being alone but didn’t have the words to say so. After making rounds on my other patients, I went back to his room and asked him a simple question.

“What is it that you want to do most before you die, Mr. Smith?”

He looked surprised, but his answer was quick on his tongue. “I want to feel the sun on my face one more time” he said quietly.

And, so, that’s how I found myself on a busy city street with a patient in a wheelchair, still connected to his IV drips and oxygen. As I watched him, sunning himself, feeling the fresh air on his face and the simple joy of a sunny day, I realized that looking beyond anger and hurt can result in real healing. By putting my own feelings aside and by really listening to someone in obvious pain, I was able to give another human a tiny gift before he died.

My patient died the next day, and I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to be in that moment with him.

Recently, a video was floating around my Facebook feed, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bring me to tears each time. In less than a minute, the ad agency Cleansheet Communications was able to convey inclusiveness and dignity for a vulnerable child. They created an ad for a Canadian tire company that has instantly gone viral because of its simple message: When the best of us step up, our nation stands a little taller.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly need more of this in my life.

In the last few months, I’ve thought a lot about my patient and our day in the sun. How it felt to help him, how he must have felt to realize that someone was able to decipher his cry for help, and how it must have looked to those walking by us on the street. And though it was a difficult task to coordinate his patient care and safety in order to roll his lounge chair onto the sidewalk midday in a busy city, it remains my proudest moment as a nurse. Not because I want praise or accolades but because I listened and stood up when someone needed me most.

And we all have the power to do the same for our most vulnerable citizens. The pathway to a great nation doesn’t lie with fear-mongering politicians or pundits spouting half truths on morning shows. Rather, a great nation is formed in the way that we treat those who need us the most: the children of poverty, the victims of elder abuse, and those seeking refuge in our country because they’ve been persecuted in their homelands.

We are only as great as our weakest links, and right now, our chain is broken. But it’s not damaged beyond repair. We all have the power to build up our defenses, to shore up our humanity, to make our country great. But it will take standing up to injustices, one by one, day by day.

Standing up means not rolling your eyes when you see a little boy wearing a dress on the playground.

Standing up means removing words like “lame” and “crazy” from your speech because the differently abled community finds those words offensive. (It also means not blathering on in defense of these words when there are so many others that can easily replace them.)

Standing up means not tolerating leaders who mock the disabled or who prevent transgender people from using certain bathrooms.

Standing up means understanding that illegal immigrants bring hope, a strong work ethic, and a desire to be a part of our country when they cross our borders. It’s realizing that we should find ways to be inclusive and change the laws towards citizenship, rather than purge their contributions from our country.

Standing up means realizing that everyone needs their moment in the sun and that sometimes those sunny moments have to be orchestrated by those who have the power to help shine light into darkness.

Standing up means being uncomfortable and vulnerable at times, so that we can properly affect change for our marginalized communities.

And standing up means sitting down with those who disagree with you to really listen to what they have to say. Sometimes, in doing so, you’ll have a breakthrough — a moment in the sun — and that’s how progress is made.