Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Renegades and Reality Checks.

*Names, details, all that stuff changed. You know what's up.

"If you looked in my life
And see what I've seen... 

If you looked in my life
And see what I've seen... "

~ from Mary J. Blige's "My Life"


The census was light. We were down to seven patients total on the inpatient service and those seven weren't terribly active. They had problems that our team could get our hands firmly around and their clinical courses seemed to make sense. I was leaning on the nurses' station holding a cup of tepid coffee that I'd been guarding for over two hours. I knew that if I sat it down for even two seconds it would be swept out of the way in an OSHA-compliant whirlwind.

"What you daydreamin' about, Miss Kim?"

I glanced over and saw the kind gentleman who transports IV Fluids and supplies pushing his little rolling cart. Like always his smile was broad like linebacker shoulders and, like always, he approached me for the one-armed hug I'm always privy to when we meet in hallways. My eyes softened and my arm extended almost reflexively.

"Mmmm-mmmm!" We made that sound in unison. Our hugs always had sound effects, which I loved. He started it, I think, way back when I was pregnant with Isaiah. I remember him saying, "You got to hug like you mean it!" That's where the sound part came into it and, even when I don't make that sound, I often think of those words when doling out hugs because that was a good word.

"Well. I'm finished with my work already. And it's not even twelve noon." I went back to his question to let him know that I hadn't forgotten it. I twisted my face like I was trying to think of what to do next. Partly as an exaggeration but also because I really was.

"You don't even know what to do with yo'self, do you, Miss Kim?" He let out a laugh that rolled down the hall like a bowling ball. It immediately made me laugh, too.

"I reckon I don't." And I did say "reckon" because something about talking to Southerners makes me adopt my own Southern-ness, too.

"Well. I say you go and jest sit with somebody. Whoever don't have nobody to see about 'em go and spend some time. Whenever I been in the hospital that always make me feel better to get a visitor."

I held his gaze for a beat and recognized that he knew what he was talking about. Though I'd never cared for him in the hospital, it was hard not to notice what appeared to be some kind of neurologic problems. There was an irregularity of his gait; an asymmetric and irregular limp. I never knew if it was from a leg-length discrepancy, some kind of congenital palsy or even a remote stroke. Either way, it didn't surprise me that he'd had some experience with being a patient in a hospital.

I jutted out my lip and nodded in response. "That's a good idea, my friend."

"Alright then, Miss Kim. You be sweet now, hear?" And before I could answer he was on his way back to work, leaning over the wire cart and hiking up his left hip with every other step. I noticed the joy coming from him despite what he was up against and put that on a post-it note in my head for later.

"Alright then, sir." Even though he was out of earshot I felt the need to acknowledge yet another good word from him.

Instead of moving I just stood there frozen and trying to think about what to do next and who to go and "see about." I reached into my pocket and scanned my short list of patients. Two were off the floor having procedures. One did not speak very good English and was a little delirious. Another was nonverbal and rather somnolent. That left three patients. Two of them always had visitors standing vigil at the bedside. With the selection framework I'd been given in mind, I settled on the only one of remaining--the one who "don't have nobody to see about 'em."

Or at least the one who seemed that way.

I knocked on the wall near the second bed in the room and announced my entrance. She offered me an expression of pleasant surprise.

"Hi there," I said with a smile. "Just stopping back by to check on you."

They had just passed the lunch trays. I waited quietly as she lifted the green plastic cover to her lunch plate and surveyed the afternoon's offerings. Turkey, green peas, and a sweet potato. Instead of peeking under the lid of the accompanying soup, she simply peeled back the lid and gave it a sniff. She shrugged and took a sip of it. "Broth. Yuck." She shuddered and then sat it on the table, exiling it from the rest of her food.

"Mind if I sit?" I asked. I was already pulling over the bedside chair as I made that request and fortunately she didn't seem to mind.

"You ain't got no bad news, do you?" She didn't even look at me when she said that part. At this point she was sprinkling the last of the three pepper packets over everything on her plate. That sight made me smile inside because I always tease Harry for peppering everything before even tasting it.

"Nope. Just came by to say hey."

She paused with a butter pat on her plastic knife and gave me a smile. "Well, hey!"

"I can come back later. Really I was just stopping by to visit with you. Believe it or not, I had some extra time and thought I'd spend a little more time with you. You look like you're about to throw down so I can come another time."

"If you don't mind me eating while you here, I don't mind at all. Matter of fact, that make me feel kind of special that you here." She bit into her buttered roll and then stopped. Pointing the piece of bread in my direction she said, "Don't you be on television?"

"I used to be on every week. Not as much now."

"I knew that was you," she replied with a mouthful of food.

"Yes, ma'am."

So for the next few moments I simply sat next to her bed as she dug into the "double portion" that we'd ordered for her the night before. Whoopi Goldberg was fussing at that Elizabeth Hassel-something-or-other on The View and Barbara Walters was rolling her eyes. I never watch that show but felt convinced that every single time that I have that this is exactly what is happening no matter what the topic of the day.

My patient asked me to call her by her first name as soon as we met. "Call me Sheila," she'd insisted after my standard last name greeting earlier in her hospitalization. Even when I responded by calling her "Miss Sheila" she quickly corrected me by saying "Sheila is just fine."

Sheila it would be.

Sheila seemed a lot older than her age. It was like she'd lived her life in dog years, cramming a centennial's worth of hard knocks and horrors into her four decades. Her upbringing had been "rough" as she described it and the last twenty years revolved around her addiction to crack cocaine. She had "some kids" and "some grandkids, too" -- none of whom were in her custody. When she told me that--let me tell you--her lip didn't quiver not one bit, nor did her eyes water. This was her reality. Those tears had dried up long before.

"Do you remember the very first time you used?" We'd been talking for a while at this point so I figured I'd ask. It's a question that I'm always curious about. The first time--how did it happen? Or even what was going through the person's head?

Sheila wasn't a fifty-something or sixty-something year-old. She wasn't of that age that shake-shake-shaked their booties in discotheques in the seventies, tooted powder lines to feel relaxed, and then took a naiive hit of this "new stuff" called free base. She wasn't a part of the era that got blindsided by the crack cocaine epidemic as it unfolded on urban street corners in the eighties--making squirrelly gangsters uber-rich and working poor folks disturbingly poorer.

Nope. Not her. She was of the age that I was. Plus or minus no more than three years. The age that turned on televisions and heard First Ladies telling kids to "Just say no to drugs!"  Like me, I bet she probably sat cross legged on the floor and sang along with that infectious "GET HIGH ON YOURSELF" NBC jingle aimed at little kids like us, imploring us to believe that "being high on yourself" is actually rather cool.

Maybe. But my point is. . .she came up in the era that had been given the memo. The genre who cringed at the eighties movie Less Than Zero and who still try to shake those awful scenes from that movie from our heads when we see this reinvented version of Robert Downey, Jr. in movies like Iron Man. And even if she didn't see any of that, kids our age were told. Crack is bad. It's addictive. It's whack. Don't use it. Don't touch it. Or else.

So why? So how? How did that first time happen? How could it have happened even?

Her answer was pretty nondescript. "I was nineteen and it was a bad day," she said. She left it there.

"A bad day?" That was it? That was all? I wanted to know more.

Now she was slurping her coffee. She winced on the first sip and I suspected that her fractured teeth were sensitive to the temperature. I was glad that she didn't seem annoyed by my queries. In fact, she seemed to welcome them. "I left home when I was like fifteen. I was working on the track from sixteen on. That was rough, you know?"

"The track?" I'd heard the term before but I wanted to get clarity just to be sure.

"You know. The track. Where you walk to get picked up. That's where they drop you off and where the girls go when they, you know." She made a rolling gesture with her hand to fill in the blank. "You know."

You know. Sell their bodies.


"You were sixteen? Damn."

"Yeah. Sixteen is hot on the streets. Fifteen even better. I looked-ed young so they was at me tough. First I was a renegade, then I got chose so I had some protection."

"Chose? Like you got a . . .pimp?"  It almost felt cartoon-like to say it aloud. I'd never uttered the word "pimp" to someone in the context of them really, truly having one.

"Unnnh hunnh." She hitched her breath again after a little more coffee passed over her lips.

"What's a renegade?" I continued. This one I didn't know and hadn't heard.

"That's when you just on the track and ain't been chose. But that's dangerous."

"So like. . . .where is 'the track?'"

That made her laugh out loud. "You funny, doc. The track is everywhere that it's girls walking. Or the boy-girls 'cause some people into that, too. Every city got tracks. It just depend on what you looking for, you know? Like if you want young girls, big girls, white girls, black girls, boy-girls. You go to that track. That's before the computers, too. Now it's kind a different but they still be out there getting they money on them streets. Getting that paper!"

The whole thing made me shudder. At sixteen I was crying after a bad experience with my first pelvic exam. That was as close as I'd ever been to being penetrated and here she was--around the same point in time--getting penetrated over and over again to stay alive. I tried to look calm, like this was talk I'd heard all the time. It wasn't, though. It so very wasn't.

"It seems like you had a lot of bad days before you turned nineteen, though. Wow."

"You know? When you don't have no family, the girls become your family. We used to be close and have fun together. People don't think that but we did."

"I can see that."

"I got tired. Tired of doing that all the time and I had been thinking about trying to get out the game. But that's hard." I leaned my chin on my hand and stayed silent. She went on. "My daddy had good girls. We was all young and fine and pretty, too. Them dudes stayed at us, they always wanted his girls. He kept our hair did and us looking nice. But he didn't like it when you got messed up. Like if you got old or too big or whatever. He also didn't like no crackheads."

I was confused for a moment but then a light bulb came on. She said she wanted out. It was hard to get out. And her "daddy" didn't like when his girls got tied up with drugs? I hoped she wasn't saying what I thought she was saying. "So. . . .you said it was a bad day?"

"I had got hit by this dude and he robbed me. And my jaw was hurting but he put me right back out on that track. The fiends was always out there and the hustlers was out there serving 'em. They didn't bother us 'cause the crack fiends always would do stuff for a hit so they didn't need to be bothered with us. And that day, I was just like eff it."

"Eff it?"

"Yeah. I bought a rock and smoked that shit. Sure did. Smoked some more and just like they say, I wanted more. My jaw didn't hurt, my feet didn't hurt, nothing. Next thing I know, I was hooked. Spending my money on it and just waiting to get my ass whooped for it."

"Did you?"

"Hell yeah! Almost left me for dead. But you know what? That's how I got out. He fired me when he found out I was a fiend."

"Wow." I didn't know what to say or ask next. Trading in prostitution for crack addiction sounded like the same kind of choice given to people inside of towering infernos--jump out from a twenty-story window or burn to a crisp. Both are equally shitty options. I wiped my face to get that out of my head and went on. "So. . . when you . . got fired. . . like. . . how did you feel?"

She paused for a second and thought before answering. "Sad, a little bit. Because I missed my other girls. But relieved, too. I mean, I knew how to get money. Now instead of money it was just rocks, you know, to get high."

And all through this conversation she kept doing mundane things like sipping coffee and sprinkling pepper which was really off-putting. It made the dichotomy between our lives just that much more palpable; her everyday existence so far, far away from my own.

"I'm sorry."

She shrugged once again and smiled at me with those decaying teeth. Behind the matted hair and weathered skin, I could see flickers of that once beautiful young teen. I mourned her loss and wished someone had been there to protect her. Instead, all I could do was hear her truth and recognize that there are lots of harsh realities going down right here, right now in the United States of America.

"You sorry? Shoot, I'm sorry that I got to wait until five o'clock to get some more food!" She announced that ironic response while covering the plate again. "Or that Sprite ain't on the menu." She laughed a raspy laugh that somehow gave me another pang in my stomach.

"You want some Sprite?" I asked.

"Yes. But in a can, not a bottle. It's colder in a can."

And with that, I stood to my feet and went to do just that. Because Sprite in a can was something I could do. I couldn't just pop some quarters into her universe and wait for a new life to pop out of the bottom. But an ice cold lemon-lime soda from the machine in the family waiting area? That I could do.

When I came back to her room, she had already nestled under the covers and was dozing off. I gently placed the can of soda on her tray table and grabbed a napkin from her tray to leave her a note.

Thanks for letting me visit with you and for telling me about your life. Here is your Sprite. I hope it's still cold when you wake up. 

Dr. Manning

When I prepared to walk out, the last thing I heard was Whoopi Goldberg still fussing at somebody on The View.  I hit the mute button on the side of her bed, pulled the divider curtain, and then went on with the rest of my day . . . . marveling at what can happen but for the grace of God or for the luck of the draw--whichever you believe in.

Welcome to Tuesday.

And now playing on my mental iPod. . .first, the talented Ms. Mary J. Blige singing "My Life." It made me imagine Sheila singing it with her raspy voice and just as much soul. (I always have to stomp my foot and say, "You betta SING, Mary!" when I hear this song.) Turn it up and you will, too.

Second. . . .the ridiculously cheesy 1981 "Get High on Yourself" commercial -- check out all the celebrities back then! I was in the fifth grade when this came out and my best friend and I sang it on the bus every single day.

And lastly. . . . I'm just saying. . . Clint Eastwood didn't just start going off the script. . . peep this from the unveiling of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign. 


  1. I love that you got her that can of Sprite. There is so much need out there that it can be completely overwhelming. And overwhelming often translates into paralysis. I just think if we all do something, however small, that it somehow translates into a positive energy that effects change. You, of course, effect change every day by your presence at Grady...
    Love, Coach B

    1. Whoops, the comment below was supposed to be here! That's what I get for poking fun at your husband yesterday! Ha ha ha!

  2. Wow! This makes the little mundane things I've complained about seem pretty petty. You have such a good way with words and getting people to tell their life stories. I have a cousin who was addicted to crack when I was a child. It was one of those widely known family secrets. I've wanted to ask him about it so badly but just don't know how to broach the subject.
    - Bridgette

    1. Real talk, Bridgette. I have found that the best thing to do is to just ask and not be judgmental. I'm always surprised at how much people are waiting to tell their truths. I'm sure your cousin would be moved if you asked. The key also not to ask out of just being a voyeur but for more understanding. I think we all have a little voyeur in us but the understanding part should trump it in the end.

  3. Aaah! I was hoping I'd post this in time for your lunch reading! Ha ha ha! Thanks for all you do!

  4. I'll be thinking about you and Sheila a lot today... xoxo

  5. Such a poignant story. Thanks for taking the time to experience it and for having the courage to share it with all of us.

  6. You do service. Do you know what I mean? I think you might.
    You know me- I don't give much credit to those who are religious and stand up and profess their faith because talk is so damn cheap. What matters is the doing. The service.
    The serving of others and that is what you do. Sometimes you do it by medical means but I think that your GIFT of service is listening and valuing. I cherish you and your service and your stories. I see holiness in them and in you.
    That's what I have to say to you today, Sister Doctor/Mother/Wife/Friend.

    1. Love you Sister/Grandmother/Mother/Wife/Friend/Actor/Writer/Activist Moon.

      That's what I have to say to you today.

  7. But for the grace of GOD, go I. You are living proof of love being a verb .

    Maria, fellow Meharrian

  8. I love your words--smile as wide as a line-backer's shoulders, a laugh that rolls down the hall like a bowling ball.

    You are a wonderful listener too. Writer, listener, teacher, mother, doctor. Whoa, lady. You are one generous and talented woman.

  9. I have two family members who have been addicted to crack for at least 15 years. I want them to tell me about it so badly. I have to know. I'm going to ask next time I see them. Thank you.

    1. Ask. I bet they'd appreciate the chance to share their truth. I have learned that many people are just waiting to be asked.


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

Related Posts with Thumbnails