McKenzy Wall ’22 portrays the life of a man living on the streets of a large city, emphasizing the ephemeral nature of life and the often overlooked struggles of the homeless with the health care system.
I sat pressed against a brick wall outside of a convenience store, staring up at the few dim stars visible in the light polluted sky. The crowds of business people heading home soon thinned out, and eventually the constant hum of cars died down. The city clock above me read 9:58 p.m., January 3rd, 20°F. I pulled my tattered blanket closer to me as the cold wind whipped against my emaciated body. I’d heard from passersby about the blizzard coming tomorrow. My stay at the homeless shelter had ended last week, and my attempt to lottery for a bed had been unsuccessful. I braced myself and closed my eyes in attempt to sleep, but the extraordinary numbness in my fingers and toes was too painful for me to ignore. It was going to be a long night.
After what seemed like hours, I looked back to the clock to see that only a few minutes had passed. The snow was supposed to begin around midnight. The shop across the street was still decorated for Christmas, and I wondered if I stared at the lights long enough I could forget where I was. Maybe, if I tried hard enough, I could launch myself years back in time to when I celebrated Christmas around a warm fire, surrounded by friends and family.
At some point I must have fallen asleep, because I woke up covered in a thin dusting of snow. The whole world was white, and my mind felt disconnected from my body. It took me a few minutes to realize that my body was completely numbed; I could barely feel my limbs. I cursed under my breath and dug the almost empty bottle of rum out from one of the blankets wrapped around me, finishing it off in a desperate attempt to make myself feel warm.
It was now 3:05, and the alcohol in my veins had done nothing but slightly denumb my brain. I looked down at my pale almost-blue hands. I realized that I had no other option. The cold was overwhelming, and the snow was picking up. I laboriously picked up my belongings and started to follow the big blue “H” signs lining the street.
I stood outside the emergency room, questioning why I had come here. Maybe it would be better for me to stay on the streets, and if I froze to death, who would care? What exactly drove me to go inside, I’m not sure. It may have been my instinct to survive, or possibly it was a sliver of hope that I would find something more than just a warm place to spend the night. Whichever it was, I regretted my decision right away.
The emergency room was a mess. Nurses and doctors raced around frantically, pagers beeping to signal incoming patients. I heard someone say something about the snow causing an accident on the nearby highway. And then, a nurse saw me standing there.
“What are you doing here? Have you checked in?” She said, in a harsh tone that was clearly one of someone overwhelmed and exhausted. Though she was trying to remain calm, I could see a flitter of annoyance in her eyes. I suddenly became very conscious of my unkempt beard and filthy clothing.
After checking in, I was greeted by another nurse. She went through the motions of asking me my name, date of birth, allergies, and finally symptoms. It was in that moment that I realized I didn’t have a real reason to be there.
“Th-The cold,” I stuttered, showing her my hands that were no longer numb. She looked at me skeptically.
“I’ll be right back.” She walked over to a male nurse. She whispered and motioned in my direction. I caught bits and pieces. “…alcoholic…says he’s cold…what to we do?”
After taking one look at me, he replied, quite audibly, “Just get him an IV. That’s all he wants.” My stomach dropped as I realized how telling my appearance must have been. I looked down at my dry cracked hands and my ripped jeans.
How did I get here? I flashed back to the times I had been in this same ER many years before, times in which I had come for just the reason the male nurse suggested. But those were times before I had lost my job and been thrown out of my own house. How had they let me do that to myself? Week after week I had been here, and not once had they done anything more than give me the IV I’d asked for. They didn’t even try to get me help.
In some ways, they had catered to my addiction, and now I was here. Why they never intervened, I am still unsure of. Was it because I had been a successful businessman, and therefore I must have been fine — I must have known what I was doing, right?
A doctor now came over to me to administer the IV. She was young, and she must have just arrived as she did not look half as flustered as her colleagues.
“How are you?” She asked, in what seemed like a truly genuine way.
“Good.” It was all I could bring myself to say.
She nodded. “Okay, well I’m going to put in this needle for the IV, and you should be feeling better soon.”
She pulled back my sleeve and began to position my arm so she could find a vein when she suddenly furrowed her brow and tightened her grip. She was staring at a freckle on my arm. I didn’t think much of it. It was larger than most freckles, but it was flat and a dark brown color. I wasn’t sure of how long it had been there.
She moved her gaze from my arm to my unshaven face and then said, “I think we should have someone take a look at this.” She finished administering the IV and then hurried off.
Hours passed, and I sat in the same room. They had removed the mark to biopsy it, and I was expected to wait until the results were available. I was just thankful for the opportunity to remain in the warm building for longer. It could be weeks until I got a spot in the shelter again. That meant weeks of blizzards, ice covered sidewalks, and stiff frozen hands…
The doctor from earlier reentered the room. Her previous calm demeanor had changed, and she was stood quiet with lips pursed.
“So,” she paused, “We found that the freckle is a melanoma, a deadly type of skin cancer.” She waited for my reaction.
I didn’t say anything, I just stared blankly in front of me. Cancer? Of all the things I could be cursed with in my life, I never thought cancer would be one of them. Wasn’t the alcoholism, the loss of my family and home, my lack of employment, and my sheer absence of dignity as a human being enough?
The doctor continued talking. “Sir, with your…um, living condition…we aren’t sure we can help you unless you’re insured. I greatly apologize, it’s just that we aren’t allowed to if your condition isn’t life threatening.”
I wasn’t surprised by this.
“I understand,” I replied. I started to gather my things to leave.
The doctor began to walk away, then turned back around. Her face was filled with anguish. “I am so sorry.” I knew she meant it.
I gave her the best smile that I could, and then I went on my way. Once a many times again, here the hospital was, letting me go. No intervention and no cure had been or would ever be found inside that ER, at least not for me. But more importantly, that sliver of hope that I’d had was now gone forever, lost in a sea of paperwork and the dictator of my fate that was the healthcare system. It was now January 4th, 6:32 a.m., 25°F. As I stepped out into the cruel and tempestuous blizzard, only one thought occupied my head: My life will go on.