When a client who always comes to my classes and stops by my office frequently had a medical emergency, I learned a lot about emergencies and how personal priorities differ. I was by her side until the ambulance swept her away to a hospital just five minutes from my house. I checked in with my supervisor and was encouraged to visit her during her hospital stay.
Think about it for a minute. If you had been homeless for years, if you lived in a shelter, if you had to be physically present every evening to guarantee yourself a bed, if going to the hospital mean losing your bed, what would you do? Can you imagine having to choose between going to the hospital to address your medical emergency or going back to the shelter for your bed? I can’t imagine having to do that, yet this situation is not an outlier–women using services at N Street Village experience life impacting decisions like this every day.
I decided to make the visit. And, I couldn’t be happier with my decision. The smile on her face when I walked into her hospital room while she ate dinner was a look that would warm even the coldest of hearts. Not in her wildest dreams did she expect a hospital visitor, especially me, a 22-year old staff member.
What she said to me in the short hour I sat with her will stay with me forever. She looked deep into my eyes and said, “Sarah, they’re telling me I’ve got to quit (smoking). And, and, I’m not ready yet. I want to be a smoker without a smoker’s problems. Smoking is all I got. It’s what I do. What would I do if I didn’t smoke? I, I, wouldn’t be nothing.”
I co-facilitate N Street Village’s smoking cessation class, Save Your Breath, every Monday afternoon. So, when she said that to me, a million things raced through my mind. I could have spit out statistics, I could have told her the steps to quit, I could have told her how she needs to quit, but I found myself oddly silent and completely humbled. Instead, I told her quitting smoking isn’t something she has to do yesterday, today, or tomorrow. I told her we can talk about harm reduction and cutting back when she’s out of the hospital, but for now to get her rest and focus on feeling better.
I walked out of the hospital and to my out-of-office life, but her comments will never walk away from me. What truly gets me is that what keeps her alive—smoking—is exactly what is killing her. All I could do in her small hospital room was to be truly present with her so she knows smoking isn’t all she’s got. She has a Village that loves her, and will support her through hospital visits and encourage her to make positive changes.
By Sarah Thappa – Sarah is a member of AIDS United’s AmeriCorps National team with the Washington AIDS Partnership and serves as the HIV Health Promotion Specialist at N Street Village. She does HIV education, counseling, outreach, and testing in addition to health promotion classes on various topics. Sarah hails from Northern Illinois and graduated from Carleton College ‘13 with a B.A. in Biology.