Going to school in Camden means often being confronted with people and things that make you uncomfortable. Our building is settled on a corner of a fairly busy street, and there’s pedestrian traffic throughout the day. Issues of homelessness, addiction, poverty, and mental illness are on full display nearly every day and therefore impossible to ignore. Having worked in Camden for the last year, I am generally accustomed to seeing the people who are struggling with these issues. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time learning about the resources available in the city and while funding is generally meager, I’ve felt hopeful about continuing progress. Perhaps that’s why I was so unprepared for what happened today.
When I left school around 6pm, riding the high of a compliment received in a practice patient encounter, I walked past a man who had been rummaging in the trash can looking for food. When he spotted me, he stopped and began to say something I couldn’t quite make out. I gave my usual response of “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything to give you.” While I wish I could carry around enough granola bars to hand out to anyone who asked for food or money, I often forget. I’ve also come to terms with the impossibility of solving hunger on my own, and have resolved to accept that I do what I can. But caught up in my own excuse, delivered with a practiced expression of grim apology, I hadn’t even heard what the man was saying. In fact, he wasn’t asking for anything. He was apologizing.
The apology jolted me out of my protective empathy armor. This man, who was so hungry and desperate for food that he was willing to eat from a trash can, was apologizing to me, because he believed I might have been upset when I saw what he was doing. This was a thousand times sadder than asking for help, and I deeply wished at that moment that I hadn’t eaten my afternoon snack so I could have given it to him instead. Instead, at a loss for what to do, I offered a general reassurance that “It’s okay” and moved on, at least physically if not entirely in my thoughts.
Of course, there are places that offer free meals in Camden, and many require nothing from patrons except that they respect others both running and receiving the services. I’ve wondered if I should have informed the man about where he could go, but it was getting late, later than dinner is served at any of those places. I also know there are lots of reasons someone might not use services like free meals, even when they are available.
This evening’s encounter interrupted the concentrated state I’d been in all week, in preparation for our first exam this Friday. Despite feeling helpless, I’m reminded of why I wanted to go to school here, and of my ultimate goal, to advocate for the health (and the factors that affect health) of my patients and the population they’re a part of. Tonight I’m approaching my studies with a bit of renewed energy, and sending a little prayer for the man who won’t ever know he was the source.