Monday, October 05, 2009

Witness

As with any city of size, mine has its share of the homeless. As with any city of size where we experience Winter, these displaced individuals migrate to warmer locations as the temperature drops - shelters, coffee shops, malls, and the subway.

I was heading home from a rather uneventful birthday party on Friday, a couple stops away from my destination, when I saw him. As the homeless go, he wasn't in the worst shape. He was mostly upright, walking straight, and wasn't giving off a stench that would clear the car. But the front of his hoodie was covered in something. I just glanced, and assumed it was vomit. Then he approached me. I tensed, expecting a request for change, perhaps accompanied by an exhortation if his woe. But when I looked at him, I realized something was wrong. It wasn't vomit staining his blue top, but blood - lots of it. The gash across the right side of his face, the length of his cheek bone, was the obvious source. It would add yet another scar to his already worn face.

"Excuse me, but can you take me to the hospital and be a witness for me?"

How do you say no to someone covered in blood and bleeding from their face, especially when their request doesn't take you that far off your intended route?

So I agreed. This began a litany of despair and injustice. My new acquaintance had visited the hospital in question a number of times, and had been unjustly accused of various threats and acts of violence. His rights as a human had been trampled on. Security had manufactured a story of him threatening them with a knife, they'd denied him treatment, they'd sent him to jail for 5 days, they'd pushed him into a car, they'd spit on him in front of a doctor, laughed at his ailments, and they'd beaten him with extend-o-sticks. He felt less than human and was too proud to let them win.

Tonight he'd been kicked in the face, opening up stitches from earlier surgery to repair a broken cheek bone. That he was injured and needed medical help was not in question. So he was returning to the hospital that had treated him so unfairly. But this time he was prepared - he had me as a witness.

He told me of his past, the money and business and family and dog he'd lost on his way down. He related how he's been ignored by those whose job it is to help those in need. Through it all, I recognized that he was leaving out his own personal responsibility in these misfortunes. I know a sociopath when I hear one. What sense of guilt and pity I had originally felt was being replaced with a sense of adventure and curiosity in how the events of that night would play out. A new story could enter my rapidly tiring repertoire.

As we walked through the automatic doors to the emergency room, the reaction from the staff was instantaneous. This man was a known entity, and none too welcome. The fact he had some clean-cut white guy with him however, seemed to be cause for pause. Did I mention he was of Middle-eastern descent? Not an immigrant, but the skin tone was there. If this played a role or not with the Asian nurse and all-white security team, I don't know.

"What is it tonight?" asked the exasperated nurse. He related the meeting of foot-to-face that he had experienced, and then, immediately and unprovoked, launched into a higher-volume tirade against the security guards watching him. The potential for disaster was escalating.

I was asked who I was. My response of "just a guy who saw someone covered in blood" seemed enough to placate the staff. They confirmed I was just a passer-by and told me I could leave. I opted to stay. As much as I knew I wasn't getting the whole story from our victim, I also knew he wasn't lying. The frustration and dislike written on the faces of every employee there told me that if I left, this man would find himself, at the very least, untreated on the street. Besides, I'd promised I'd see this through for him.

The knife escapade was related by the staff to him - "You need to be searched given your history. You pulled a knife on us."

"That never happened! These guys made up the knife!"

"I was there."

"Did you see the knife?"

"No, but they did."

"They're liars!"

I got the feeling it was being related more for my benefit, to make me aware of the type of individual I had aligned myself with.

The arguments and accusation went back and forth, and security had created a perimeter around the guy. He was becoming increasingly agitated and accusatory, and the security team was rolling their eyes, communicating "here we go again" as clearly as if they sang it. Just as things looked to come to a head, which would have resulted in him being escorted outside, he FINALLY said what he should have said right away, "A nurse can search me."

The nurse behind the counter responded with "fine, I'll search you." And he put on some gloves and walked around the counter. Security tightened and the guy started to lose it again. Then the nurse took charge.

"TALK TO ME. I'm here to save your life. I don't care what your beef is with them, take that to the police if you want to complain. They're here to protect me from you. If you don't do anything threatening, we'll all be fine."

He proceeded to search him. Going through his sweaters and pockets and patting him down. When nothing of interest was found, he checked with the head security guard if everything was cool. It was agreed that all was fine. Patient registration could commence.

As he relayed his story, and security relaxed, one of the guards mumbled to nobody in particular while passing me, "he probably cut himself."

He was registered with minimal effort, and asked me to stay a bit longer. I sat across from him as he thanked me. "If you weren't here, I wouldn't have gotten in." I believe this. He told some of his stories with this security team again, raising his voice so they could hear. I suggested he stay calm and everything would be cool. He saw the wisdom in this and calmed down.

A few moments later, he was called beyond the double doors to the treatment areas. I asked if he was okay from here and he thanked me again. Not once did he ask for a handout among his tales of woe. All he wanted was to be treated the same as anyone else would when they walk into a hospital bleeding from their face. He just wanted to feel like he was still a human being.

4 comments:

VinNay said...

Wow. Just.....wow. I can't wait for universal healthcare in America.

On a serious note - you are a good man Astin. For a canuck.

BamBam said...

After the Tweet, I was hoping to read a bit more about this.

It may mean nothing at all but just the same, I'm proud of you.

Sean D said...

An incredible story, and once again proof of why you are the man you are.

Well done sir.

Dr. Pauly said...

Good karma points to you.

That guy would have bled to death in an alley in America. s