God’s gift to me
Once a week I leave the brick-paved sidewalks of colonial Georgetown to provide medical care to the homeless in a basement clinic just blocks from the Capitol dome on the National Mall. Until this past winter, efforts to see Christ there in the faces of the poor often left me with a sense of confusion and failure. Spiritually frustrated, I complained one morning to a Jesuit brother over breakfast, “If Christ is in there, I can’t see Him.” God’s surprising response to my struggle came a few hours later, when Thomas stumbled into our clinic.
|Almost all of our shelter patients practice ordinary hygiene. Thomas was an exception; he had been sleeping in dumpsters. The dirt caked into his sweatshirt was gritty and stiff. He smelled like a Manhattan curbside during an August garbage strike.
Thomas could barely walk. His back was bent with age — a gray beard and white hair proclaimed him an elder statesman of the street. Escorted by an energetic volunteer, he neither looked up nor smiled as he shuffled toward an exam room. Respectful and quiet, he allowed his self-appointed assistant to lead. His companion wore a bright yellow slicker stenciled “Advocate for the Homeless.”
Grabbing the chart from a basket on the door, I followed the pair into the room. It was difficult to maintain my composure as the stench rising from Thomas’ clothing nearly caused me to gag. Almost all of our shelter patients practice ordinary hygiene. Thomas was an exception; he had been sleeping in dumpsters. The dirt caked into his sweatshirt was gritty and stiff. He smelled like a Manhattan curbside during an August garbage strike.
“What brings you in?” I asked. When he didn’t respond, I tried another tack.
“How can I help you, sir?” Still nothing. I began to wonder if there was anything we could do for this man. “Thomas, is there some way I can help you?”
He brightened a bit at hearing his name and looked at me, “I got arthritis.”
“Great,” I thought, “we can take care of that.”
His damp leather dress shoes were two sizes too small; sky-blue hospital booties served as his socks. We see these often enough on the indigent — evidence of recent visits to the emergency room. This pair went into the red garbage can marked “biohazard.” His toes felt ice-cold to the touch. I poked and prodded to pinpoint Thomas’ pain. Then, wiping down his soggy feet, I asked, “What else is bothering you?”
“I got a cold,” he said. It was no surprise; he had been sniffling since he arrived. Considering the several problems a cold might represent, I asked if I could listen to his chest. Using a stethoscope, I might be able to hear indications of more serious illness.
Thomas was wearing a grimy Washington Redskins sweatshirt, a plaid wool shirt, a T-shirt and two long-underwear tops. As the last shirt came off, I saw several EKG stickers affixed to his chest. Further signs of ER visits in his recent past, these jelly-filled electrodes had taken tracings of his heart’s electrical activity. A tattered ribbon of blackened medical tape encircled his right forearm. The strap cut into his skin like a forgotten tourniquet. Well-trained caregivers would not leave something like this in place when discharging a patient. I guessed that Thomas left the hospital against medical advice and before they could remove it.
“Sir,” I told him, “you need a bath.”
Observing all this, the advocate chimed in, “I can get him an appointment for a shower,” and began making calls on a cell phone. Access to sanitary facilities can be a challenge for those on the street, but most know of drop-in centers that provide such services. Thomas stepped to the sink where I cut off the tape and gave him a sponge bath. After three rinses, the water was still muddy as it fell from his forearm. The tape had left an angry swollen welt. As I wiped the electrode jelly from Thomas’ chest, the advocate announced with satisfaction that he had located a shelter where Thomas could shower and get clean clothes.
I do not know whether Thomas felt anything special in our contact. I do know that something happened to me as I washed his arms and dried his feet. An image from the Gospel of John flashed through my mind: Christ bathing the Apostles on the eve of His Passion (cf. John 13:1-15). I understood it in a way entirely new. As Thomas and I stood at the sink, Christ revealed himself present. Silent and profound, real and proximate, He came close enough to touch in the strange passivity of a homeless man and his quiet acceptance of my small ministration. It was not in contemplating Thomas’ face that I found Christ, but in the gentle poverty with which he allowed me to bathe his forearms and feet.
Finished with the sponge bath, I offered to be Thomas’ regular doctor and asked that he return the following week. Pulling a pair of white socks from our meager supply chest, I rolled them onto his feet and squeezed his still-damp shoes over their clean cotton warmth. Thomas took a bottle of ibuprofen for his pain; it was all he would accept. The advocate smiled as I flashed a thumbs-up, and the pair climbed the stairs to the street. So far, Thomas has not come back.
William Blazek, S.J., M.D., Arts ’86, is adjunct assistant professor of medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine.
Some details of this story have been altered to protect the patient’s identity and confidentiality.