Sunday, November 27, 2011

Back to life, back to reality.

(image from The Shawshank Redemption)

"Back to life, back to the present time
Back from a fantasy, yes
Tell me now, take the initiative
I'll leave it in your hands 
until you're ready. . . "

from "Back to life" by Soul II Soul

Recently I saw this man with one of the residents in the clinic who we'd seen before. He'd had his fair share of medical problems most of which were secondary to some bad habits he'd picked up over the years. Habits like crack cocaine, gin, and cigarettes. Well, turns out that those habits all got kicked when he was incarcerated for getting caught with a crack rock in his pocket. For that he went to prison.

Now he's out of prison and has a low-paying but "real, honest" job. This job let him off that day for his appointment at Grady. And he appreciated that. I know he did because he told me.

Prison was awful according to him and he described it as being in a "time warp." When he was released, he found that his teenage daughter had become a woman with her own children. And his once scrawny son was "big enough to take me down."  Lucky him, those children believed in redemption and welcomed their daddy right back into their lives just like the prodigal son. . . . .fatted calf, ring of gold and all that.

And their timing was perfect because he was ready to value his life. Prison was awful, yes, but also a gift he'd told us. Because it brought him out of the cloud he was in and brought him back to life and back to reality.

So now? He wanted to live. He cared about his health and wanted to preserve what he hadn't destroyed.

On this day, he looked a little distracted.

Oh no. Relapse? 

I hoped not. So I just flat out asked. "Sir, you look a little distracted today. Are you alright?"

And he wiped his face with his hand and shook his head. "I'm jest flustered, tha's all. I was late so that got me real flustered."

Justin, the resident with whom I was working, followed up with a little more information. "The clerk up front mentioned that you'd come to check in on time but then you left out?"

"Yeah," he answered quickly, almost cutting my resident off. He dragged the heel of his hand across his forehead. "Yeah, it was just some stuff, you know, I had to take care of."

Rut roh.

Justin and I exchanged glances. Not sure why but we did. Both of us were wondering what that was all about and hoping it wasn't some symptom of a slippery slope.  I'm ashamed to admit that I immediately thought of those "Lock up" reality shows--you know where people get out of jail and then just before the credits roll some message tells you in big block letters that they got rearrested for the same thing. I studied him carefully--wanting to be wrong.

His face was covered with a thin film of sweat. His hair was a little unkempt and I wasn't sure if it was because he'd just pulled off the knitted skull cap he was wringing in his hands or simply hadn't combed his hair. The tail of his shirt was out on one side and he kept nervously tapping his right foot.  The whole sight of it made me cringe a little.  Damn. I'd seen that look before. Five years in prison and now this? Damn.

Just as I was parting my lips to speak, Justin spoke before me. "You just don't seem like yourself. What did you have to take care of?"

I shot him an almost scolding glance. What kind of question was that? Especially when your suspicion isn't exactly one that folks readily admit to? But Justin is kind-hearted and not the least bit passive aggressive. I think he just sincerely wanted to know.

"I had to pay a bill I wasn't expecting yesterday. The electric had a reconnect charge, and I didn't plan on that. So then I didn't have my co-pay when I got up here."  He looked down at his shoes. "But man. . .I really needed to keep my appointment. And I'm sayin' . . . I needed to see the doctor."

I wasn't sure what to say to that, so I said nothing. He kept talking.  "And they wasn't mean about it, you know, but the thing is I am supposed to pay ten dollars for my visit and that's a discount, you know?"

"So they worked it out for you?" Justin queried, still trying to sort it out in his head. Now that I think of it, there was some redemption in that question, too. He was determined to give our patient the benefit of the doubt.

"Well, you know, they couldn't since this isn't, like, the emergency or nothin'.  I called my daughter and she helped me out."

"How?" I blurted out before I could stop myself. Now if anyone should have been getting a scolding glance, it should have been me for that dumb-ass question. What difference did it make how his daughter helped him? He was here so obviously it worked out.

But that question didn't faze him one bit. He answered like it was as relevant as "did you take your medicine this morning?" or "have you been experiencing any shortness of breath?"  No big deal.

"She was at work, but she was able to get away for a second to wire it to me, so I had to catch the bus up the street to get the Western Union she sent me."  Justin and I locked eyes instinctively, yet again. "Yeah, so tha's why I was late. I had to walk up to Boulevard to get the bus."

Wait, huh?

Hold up. So let me get this straight. This fifty-something year-old man caught a city train to his appointment at Grady on his off day. Had to get the lights turned back on the day before so didn't have the co-pay for his visit today? So he subsequently called his daughter to wire him TEN DOLLARS? And caught a BUS to go get it? To see US??? 


"She wired you ten dollars for your visit?" I asked him almost a little bit too incredulously--even though he'd just told us that and I knew he was serious.

"Well, really she wired me twenty. She was mad because it had to be in a multiple of twenty. I 'idn't realize that and neither did she 'til she got there." He shrugged. "So yeah. I'm sorry I'm all flustered. I just really needed to see my doctor and make sure my pressure and my lab work is okay."  He meant that.

Alright, so check it.  I will not make this unnecessarily heavy. This was just an eye-opening smack across my face. A grown ass man had already come over the river and through the woods to see us. Trying to get his life and his health right, and wanting so bad to do so that he called his daughter AT WORK and asked her to wire him TEN DOLLARS for his doctor's visit. THIS required him to walk a little over a mile, catch a bus, and go up into a CVS pharmacy to get TWENTY dollars.  Seriously? Seriously.

I won't even go into what an ass I felt like for assuming he was sweaty and "flustered" because he'd gone around the corner and gotten a hit. And let me tell you--this man was 100% serious and wasn't lying. This man was clean and thank God his kids believe in redemption because I needed that reminder provided by their example.


TEN DOLLARS? Really?  Man. I can probably locate ten dollars in change inside my couch as we speak. And here I am sitting across from this dude who is at least fifteen years my senior and this is what he has to deal with?  Damn.

Look. Everyone knows that folks are struggling all over the place. But working at Grady Hospital makes this waaaaay more than a damn notion.  I opened a magazine and read about Kim Kardashian and her fifty trillion dollar wedding extravaganza for her 72 day marriage. I read that and then thought about this man interrupting his daughter at work to wire him a ten dollar bill. And her having a discussion with him about the perils of it being a twenty and not a ten that she had to send. Damn, now if that don't make you feel glad for what you have, I don't know what does.

You know. . . this situation reminded me of that day that patient wouldn't stay for his cardiac catheterization. He told me flat out that folks out here "is losin'" and sometimes you have to make some hard decisions. Those decisions seem simple or crazy to me but not to someone like him with a felony charge and a second chance he's trying to hold onto. Damn.

Some folks wonder how we do it. Hearing all this stuff day in day out.  But honestly? I left that man feeling inspired and grateful as hell for what I have.  And if that isn't a reason to keep coming back to do what you do every day, I don't know what is.

Turns out that his blood pressure was just fine. And so were his labs.


Yeah, man. Back to life, back to reality.

Now playing on my mental iPod. . . ."Back to life" by Soul II Soul.


  1. This made me feel like crying. For this patient and in shame because sometimes fear of money gets me so anxious and yet my reality is no where near what his reality is. I am humbled. I will pray for him and for others like him and for myself to be more grateful for all I have. I love reading your blog as each time I do, I feel I get a little life lesson. Joanne

  2. Well hell. That was some amazing writing there, Grady Doctor.

    And it is true that we all make certain assumptions about people. And when those assumptions are wrong - it is like a bell rings in our hearts.

    (However your assumption about Kim Kardashian is dead nuts bells for that one!)

  3. I am constantly humbled by the realities others must face daily. As I said the other day, I feel as if I am in the 1% because I can afford a new washing machine. I ain't kidding, either.
    Thanks for reminding us ALL of what difficulty is, what poverty is, what honesty is.
    Thank you.

  4. This makes me really sad. So sad that I almost forgot to tell you that law enforcement considers any copying of legal tender as counterfeiting. You might want to consider another picture. I'm glad he wasn't using, and I'm glad his daughter helped him. He must have felt terrible to have to ask.

  5. I needed that reminder to be grateful. I had to make a change in plane reservations for a funeral and had to pay over $100 to do it. I was complaining, but should have been (and am) grateful that I had the money to make the trip at all. I need a smack to the head to see how much I have sometimes. thanks for the smack!

  6. Joanne -- Thank you so much for those kind words and insights.

    Omgrrrl -- Ain't that the truth! And thank you for the compliment.

    Sister Moon -- Grady constantly teaches me about what poverty is in this country. Yes, I know it doesn't compare to developing countries, but it is very real.

    Emmy -- Oh dang! Thanks--I will change that photos 'cause Lord knows I ain't trying to get the feds looking for me! I'm glad he wasn't using, too.

    Mary Alice - Don't we all need a smack. I know I do.

  7. Wow, that moved me. I had tears in my eyes and of course my first thought was your first thought and then to realize he did this all for $10 to cover a doctors appointment- something I take for granted, made me feel shamed. It made me wonder how to change this, how to make a difference. And I do think about people who can't afford medicine vs food vs rent and then I see how a celebrity dropped 15,000 on one purse. When you are at the very bottom how can you see that and not feel hurt, how can you fathom that when you aren't at the bottom, but you are wondering how you are going to swing several thousand to get your car fixed. You have reached at my heart with this post, you never cease to amaze. Bless you and all the other Grady doctors and bless all the patients who are blessed to come under your care.

  8. I have really enjoyed reading your blog. I stumbled upon it a couple of weeks ago. This entry hit so close to home for me. Prior to 2009 I was employed for 30 years with health insurance and a comfortable, though challenging life.

    Well, thirty years ago I was diagnosed with a rare disorder called Achalasia. With employment and health insurance I had the best gastroenterologists who performed pneumatic dilitations when needed, and one of the best Emory/Piedmont Cardio-thoracic surgeons who performed a Heller Myotomy in 1996. I was able to call and make an appointment whenever necessary and any test that I needed (endoscopy, barium swallow, etc.) could be taken care of within a weeks time.

    Now, I am unemployed without health insurance and have been coming to Grady off and on since July to get test done to determine the current status of my esophagus. What, in the past, could be resolved in a week is now being stretched out for months!!!

    Initially, trying to work my way through the Grady system was extremely frustrating. My blood pressure, which is normally "normal" since I walk about 5 1/2 miles a few days a week, was so high the doctor recommended medication. I declined the medication and explained that the flawed system was the cause of my BP problem. HA!!!

    Anyway, now I'm much calmer and have learned to just go with the "Grady" flow. Even if that means coming to the hospital in the morning and not leave until after 5:00, I make the best of my day. I've seen a lot of sadness that causes me to be even more humble that I already was. Though coming up with the $10.00 co-pay, $5.00 for parking and gas is also a challenge for me right now; I see so many people who are worse off than myself.

    I never imagined I could ever be in this place and pray that 2012 brings about new opportunities. I know I've given you a lot of information but I felt a slight connection when I found your "Grady" blog and just wanted to let you know that I've enjoyed your life stories.



"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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