Helping One Person at a Time

Jul 24, 2013, 9:00 AM


I work as a public health nurse on King County’s mobile medical unit, traveling south of Seattle in a van, providing for the health care needs of homeless individuals.  I perform many “nursing” tasks in my job – taking blood pressures, getting health histories, dressing wounds.  But my most important nursing skill is my ability to listen.

This morning I met Charlie.  Charlie is a 60-year-old Native American man who reported that he began drinking at age 12, while being passed around to various foster families.

At 17, he went to Vietnam to get away from abuse and neglect, only to be traumatized further by the war.

He called himself a “lost cause” and said he would probably never stop drinking, and knows that he “will die soon.”  As I sat silently, I listened to him grieve the loss of his culture and detail the many kinds of discrimination he has suffered. Though he spoke with the slurred speech of a chronic alcoholic, his eloquence moved me. I noticed tears in his eyes as he described a few happy childhood memories with his father—memories not quite lost to him.

Initially, Charlie did not want to see the doctor.  But after we spent time together, he decided to have a health screening. We found that he had high blood pressure and gave him a prescription for blood pressure medication. I don’t know whether he will take it, or if he will follow up. I do know that there is a better chance because we listened to his story. We respected him as an individual 

As he gathered his belongings to leave the van, I looked straight at him and said, “Charlie, you are not a lost cause.  I want you to know that.” He smiled a sad smile and shook my hand.  I said, “It was an honor to meet you.”

Working in the mobile van is a great privilege for me. Every day I get the chance to make a difference in people’s lives, and to help them know that they matter. I can help one person at a time make small choices that will improve their lives and health.  As long as there is someone to hear their stories, there are no lost causes.

Read more about the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s work on public health nursing.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.