Note: The Clinic Memoirs are based on real experiences from Occupy Medical clinic, a free, integrated health clinic that serves patients primarily, but not exclusively, in Lane County, Oregon since 2011. The names of the patients and a few personal details are changed to protect patient identity.
Gladys did not come to our clinic for herself. She came to accompany her husband who had a serious health condition that needed frequent check ups. Normally, she is there to support him. This time, she needed support. Her husband held her tightly as she rocked and held her belly on the bench. He looked worried.
I walked over to find out what was wrong. She waved me aside impatiently. Gladys did not want me to “waste my time” on her. He was the one who was signed up to see the doctor. Her husband shook his head and patted her shoulder.
“Just tell her what’s going on,” he begged. “Sue is an herbalist. She helps people with all kinds of stuff. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. She doesn’t mind, do you?”
I nodded in encouragement when he looked at me. Gladys sighed and explained in a low voice that she ate bad food last night and now had diarrhea.
“Do you think you have food poisoning?”
“No,” she said.”It’s the grease. I can’t eat really greasy stuff. It makes me sick.”
Her husband and I exchanged looks. This was clearly a chronic condition.
“Gladys, I would like you to talk to a doctor about this when you felt comfortable in doing so. Until then, I would suggest eating applesauce to calm your stomach.”
This wasn’t the first time I had encountered a situation like this. Unhoused neighbors, like this fine couple, have come to me before with digestive disorders worsened by years of eating food which was a bad match for their health. Yet, many struggling with poverty will eat food from food pantries or dumpsters rather than starve. The consequence of diarrhea is horrific for the unhoused particularly since access to bathrooms are often limited. It is staggering the discomfort and humiliation that people are willing to go through to stave off hunger.
Our clinic has a stockpile of donated emergency food: raisins, granola bars, canned apricots and applesauce. This was the situation that we saved these bits and pieces for. I excused myself from the visiting couple’s presence for a moment and shuffled through our stockpile of donations. I stuffed a few items that would fit in their shared backpack into a reusable bag.
I gave Gladys the applesauce. It was flavored with cinnamon and designed for lunchboxes. She looked at it skeptically. Her jaw formed the hard line of some one who did not like taking handouts.
“I don’t need this. Just help my husband. I’ll be fine.”
I crouched down in front of her. Our eyes met and I took a deep breath.
“Gladys, this applesauce is perfect for helping soothe diarrhea. It is nutritious and quite tasty. I want you to know that these items were donated to our clinic to help people in trouble. I also want you to know that I have noticed how kind you are to your husband. You come with him every time he visits us. You show your love by taking care of him because you know he deserves your love. Right now, your husband is caring for you. You deserve to be loved and cared for too. Please accept this gift. It will make you feel much better. I promise.”
Gladys’s eyes filled with tears. She leaned into her husband as he stroked her hair and kissed her cheek. She blinked a few times to compose herself.
“Do you have a spoon?” she asked. All three of us smiled. Gladys was going to be just fine.