Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A night in the emergency shelter

I have just completed a 20 hour stint at the emergency shelter. Yes, twenty straight hours with no sleep and not much time sitting down. We had pizza for lunch AND dinner yesterday and cereal this morning. I do not like pizza or cereal.

I don't know when I have felt more humbled in my life. We housed and fed 60 people, most of whom had only the clothes on their backs. Many were soaked to the skin, and we had no dry clothes for them. We had the aforementioned pizza and bottled water and not much else in the way of nutrition. We had flimsy (and not very comfortable) folding cots and scratchy, ugly gray blankets. My mousepad is bigger than the pillow supplied in each "linen pack." Most of these people were pathetically grateful and thanked us over and over. Some people treated it as an adventure; for others, it seemed an improvement over their "regular" lives. One couple decided to air their marital discord in the gymnasium in front of 60+ total strangers, and the "F" bomb was liberally deployed.

Many of these people lived in one of those extended stay motels. Have you ever considered how difficult it might be to live in a motel room with a tiny kitchenette? With one or more kids? Several lived in an apartment complex that was destroyed by the flood. I don't know if I have what it takes to survive that kind of life. Does that make me sound spoiled?

We had someone who suffered from schizophrenia, a child with H1N1 flu, two insulin-dependent diabetics (poorly controlled), four people with asthma, and a host of mental health issues. At one point I was convinced that only the "crazies" had been evacuated. I know, I know, that was neither kind nor Christian of me. Just remember, I had been without sleep for 32 1/2 hours.

As I got ready to end my shift, I realized that the only thing I miss about hospital nursing is the almost immediate intimacy you develop with your patients. No, I'm not talking about intimacy in the Biblical sense. And these were not my patients. But I was responsible for them for a time, and we developed a bond. When they realized that I was leaving, many of them came up to me and hugged me. Some lamented the fact that they had no money to give me. None of them realized that I came away much richer than when I arrived.