In 1998 I was a newly certified hospice volunteer. My third assignment had me pulling into a dirt driveway off a well traveled road only forty minutes from my home. As I parked my car I tried to look for the house number to confirm that this was indeed the right place as this was before the time of the much appreciated cell phone GPS. My earlier mapped out directions had led me here, but as I sat in my car looking at the place I wasn’t so sure this building was actually a house, never mind the place where inside I was supposed to find a dying woman and family in need of my hospice volunteer services. It was no bigger than a large garage and made up of many different types of building materials; metal, wood, plastic, and tarps arranged in precarious crooked formation with one small stack poking out through the top that had dark smoke billowing out. Being that it was February, I hoped that was a sign of heat. Trudging through the snow, I went to the door and knocked, still not convinced that this was indeed the place I had been assigned, but thinking if it wasn’t, at least someone could point me in the right direction. An older woman answered the door, introduced herself as Carol*, and held the door open inviting me into her home. As with the outside, the inside had been a testament to the creativity of repurposing materials in order to define rooms. I was given a brief tour: kitchen to my left, tv room to my right, slightly further in was the bathroom, and across from that the bedroom where this woman’s mother was lying in a hospital bed squeezed in beside her own bed and stacks of plastic crates which had been in use as a makeshift bureau of sorts. Carol told me that I wasn’t needed to sit with her dying mother, which I had already started to wonder in my mind how I was going to reach without crawling over this woman’s bed, but instead pointed me back towards the tv room where there was a small playpen in the corner with two babies sitting inside. She explained that she owned a business cleaning people’s homes, but as her mother had taken a turn for the worse, she was no longer able to leave her alone between jobs. The hospice nurse had predicted her mother would not live beyond the next couple days, and so her own two daughters had stepped in to take over their mother’s cleaning jobs, but in doing so had to leave their babies behind to be cared for by Carol. She told me she felt guilty having me there, but she really wanted to have a little time alone with her mother, which my being there afforded her. And so for two days I sat for two hours at a time, to care for two sweet little babies, while their grandmother sat on her bed beside her dying mother.
As a hospice nurse in 2014, I was assigned one evening to a gentleman who lived in a small cinderblock home during the heat of a blistering summer. My patient, Jim*, had been released from the hospital only hours before. As his wife opened the door I immediately stepped into a large open room which I saw had two couches, a small table, one small plastic chair, and stacks of papers, boxes, bags and miscellaneous items. Jim was highly agitated and combative. He was standing unsteadily in the middle of the room and shouting ‘Get Out!’ as I entered. His wife who appeared to be at her wits end, started crying and pleaded with her husband to ‘sit down and let the nice lady take care of you.’ Between us, we did manage to get Jim over to the couch before he fell over. I noticed that his legs and feet were hugely swollen with what we call edema, and fluid was oozing out from his fragile paper thin skin. Looking around for a foot stool to elevate his legs, and finding none, I directed his wife to bring over two boxes. Placing newspapers and then a towel over the boxes, I was able to lift his legs while at the same time wrap some chux pads I had brought quickly around them to contain the leaking mess. Seeing that Jim’s wife was emotionally exhausted, I encouraged her to go to bed assuring her that I would wake her if needed during the night, to which she gratefully agreed. Imagine my surprise as she laid herself down on the other couch just inches from me in the room and covered herself with a sheet. Did I mention that neither couch had any cushions? I suggested that she may sleep better off in her bedroom, but she just looked at me for a minute before turning her face into the back of the couch. Later that evening as I went to wet a wash cloth in the kitchen I realized there was only three rooms to the whole house; the kitchen, the bathroom, and the large open room where her husband sat dying.
A few years ago my youngest daughter Evelyn was a senior in high school preparing for a trip to Honduras. She told me she felt excited to be part of a group that was delivering much needed medical supplies to a local health clinic. Later the group planned to go further up into the rural mountain area to spend a few days helping out at an orphanage. When my daughter got back she said to me, “ I thought I knew what poor looked like before I left home, but then I saw the people at the clinic and I thought, wow, this is poverty, and then we went to the orphanage and I realized, no, this is poverty.” I knew exactly what she meant. We think we know what poverty is as we look out the window driving towards wherever we are going. But every once in awhile we stop and actually meet the person, hear their name, offer what we can, and leave with a deeper appreciation of what the word poverty really means.
*names have been changed, events presented were not