The Face of God

June 28, 2011 No Comments   

A homeless man we’ll call “Charlie” started coming to the Saint Joseph Free Health Clinic 10 years ago, when it was still a mobile service in Lexington. Samantha Todd, family nurse practitioner and advanced registered nurse practitioner, was one of the first people he met.

“He told us that he was homeless, and homeless by choice,” Todd said. Charlie was a college graduate who had traveled and had held jobs in exciting professions, but had lived an “independent” lifestyle since around 1997.

“He was pretty frank about the fact that he was an alcoholic,” Todd said. “He just wanted to get some basic health care.” She told him he had to stop drinking, of course, but Charlie would just shrug and say that wasn’t what would kill him.

Charlie was treated at the Free Health Clinic for various conditions. His appointments were scheduled every three months; sometimes he would show up and sometimes he wouldn’t. At times he lived on the street, in a tent in the woods or in an abandoned car.
In October 2009 Charlie was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He began losing weight. “He had a feeding tube but he was afraid of taking care of it himself,” said Ellen Cook, RN. He wasn’t getting nourishment on a regular basis (alcohol and sodas were about the only things he would swallow). “But he loved to eat,” Cook said.

She brought in food she made at home: mashed potatoes, rice and a soup he enjoyed. In return, Charlie would bring in things for her to fix: packages of sauces, for example, although it was questionable where they had come from. He didn’t mind the Ensure Plus shakes, and Cook would add milk, whey protein and peanut butter for extra calories. “I told him, we’ve got to do something more than what we’re doing for you, so you will stop losing weight,” she said.
He carried everything he owned in a backpack. It became harder as he got weaker, but he would take his special milkshakes with him and keep them cold in the winter weather. Charlie watched as Cook would try to pour the shake mixture, and her homemade soup on other days, into plastic water bottles for him to take.

“He came in one day and handed me this funnel,” Cook said. “It was real metal, but it looked like it had been stored or buried somewhere,” she said. “It was in pretty bad shape.”
Charlie thought the funnel might make it easier for her to take care of him. Cook accepted it, and instead of throwing it away because it was dirty, she cleaned it and used it. The funnel became an almost sacred symbol for her.

When he came in with cold feet one day, Cook put tepid water in a wash basin for him. The next time he returned he brought his own container, the base of a big flower pot, so he could soak both feet at the same time. “He put water in it, right here in the middle of the lobby,” Cook said, “with towels and water strewn all up and down the floor.”

She would also take food to him at his car from time to time and even washed his clothes at home and brought them back to him.

“We are living our core values through examples like this,” Mike Garrido, former VP of mission, said. “We are not forgetting our founding sisters, who themselves reached out to everyone, not just those who were able to pay but especially those who couldn’t.”
For the most part, Charlie was happy and pleasant, but he could be cantankerous and loud when he was intoxicated. “He established a level of trust with Ellen that he didn’t really have with anyone else in the medical profession,” said Todd, who was eventually accepted by Charlie, but just because she worked with Ellen Cook.
By summer 2010, Charlie was linked up with the Hospice Care Center at Saint Joseph Hospital. He was concerned about his animals. Who would take care of his dog and his fat mama cat while he was in the hospital? The dog was eventually picked up by the pound, but Ellen Cook convinced Charlie to let her take in the “fat” mama cat, who turned out to be pregnant. Charlie had called her “Cat” and Cook renamed her “Mama.” Cook’s daughter took the kittens when they were born.
Charlie passed away in June. At the visitation, attended by about a dozen people, an estranged family member thanked Todd and Cook for taking care of him and apologized for his alcoholism and inability to turn his life around. “I said, ‘we accepted him where he was,’” Todd said. “There was no need to apologize.”
It’s easy for most people to dismiss someone like Charlie. “Particularly somebody that doesn’t smell good, and someone you perceive you have nothing in common with,” said Rose Rexroat, manager of community services and administrator for the Eastern Kentucky Mobile Health Service. “Everyone has a story,” she said. “They have feelings, they have concerns, regardless of whether they’re poor or not.”
Rexroat is glad she met Charlie. He was appreciative of everything people did for him. “He never felt entitled,” she said. “He just never gave me the indication that he ever felt he was owed something.” Rexroat also feels blessed to be working at SJHS. “Did the patients see Jesus in us today? That’s what it comes down to,” she said. “Being in a faith-based organization is like you’re being paid to be a missionary to your own community.”

Saint Joseph Health System, Saint Joseph Hospital

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