Let me first start by saying how glad I am that free health clinics like this exist for people who literally have no resources or way to pay for health care. But merely existing is not enough…
Today I accompanied one of out guests to the only free health clinic available to the homeless of El Paso (I’ll refrain from using the name, but as it’s the only one, I’m sure you can find it if you would like to). I was annoyed I had to get up so early (needing to leave the house at 7), but I was more than happy to volunteer to go with the elderly woman who has troubles walking any distance and is not the type to stand up for herself. I left the clinic spewing with anger.
The frustration started the minute we walked in the door and the first secretary we came to literally spoke no Spanish. None. This is El Paso. There is absolutely no reason a social service provider such as this clinic should employ someone who is not bilingual to sit at the desk and direct people where to go. She tells the guest (who speaks basically no English) that the clinic doesn’t open until 8 so we couldn’t go in yet (I translated for her). She failed, though, to tell us that we couldn’t even check in yet.
So, when 8 AM comes around suddenly there is a crowd of people going through the clinic door. Because the woman I was accompanying couldn’t walk fast we suddenly moved from second to arrive to last in line. But okay, poor organization can be forgiven. Maybe I should have somehow known that that was how the process worked (sometimes I use sarcasm to express my frustration).
We then stand in line to check in. The receptionist to check us in was so aggressive and demanding that the woman I was with backed away from the window and asked me to finish checking her in. She didn’t feel comfortable doing it anymore. However, because she hadn’t been there for a while, she was given a lot of paperwork to fill out (would have been nice to do that when we got there early, huh?). And of course no offers are made to help her fill out the paperwork, which at least did have the good sense to be bilingual. You know, for those people who are homeless who are literate enough to understand complicated medical paperwork. I don’t know if my guest is literate or not. All I know is that she asked me to fill it out for her and so I happily did, being very glad I had decided to come with her.
By the time I finally finished all the paperwork, it was almost 8:30, 30 minutes past her “appointment” time. The clinic continued filling up with lots and lots of people during this paperwork time. We sit and relax a bit as we wait for her to get called back. And then keep waiting. And then keep waiting. And then keep waiting. Finally, at 9:45, 1 hour and 45 minutes after her “appointment” time I decide that I’ve had enough of this waiting (especially considering people who I know came in after us have already been seen and left) I walk up to the receptionist and ask how much longer it will be. Without bothering to consult anything or show any sort of sympathy at all, she proceeds to inform me that she will be seen at some point. Furthermore, she continued in a snarky voice, everyone receives the same 8 AM appointment time, so it’s not really an appointment. It’s just a guarantee she will be seen today. I returned to my seat feeling angry and defeated. My guest, however, just sighed and went back to closing her eyes and waiting.
Finally, at 10:30 (almost 3 hours after we got there) she was called back. The nurse asked if I was her granddaughter, something that would make sense based off our ages. When we said no, but didn’t clarify, she didn’t even bother to ask who I was in relation to her (something I feel definitely should have been asked for my guest’s privacy and safety) and just took her blood pressure and oxygen level and then asked why she was there. My guest said she didn’t really know. When the nurse started to look angry, my guest said it was probably just to follow up about her health after an incident from quite a few months ago. The nurse was impatient, never made eye contact, and didn’t even usually look at my guest while she asked questions to type into her computer. I tried to explain another concern we had (which I obviously can’t give the specifics of here for privacy reasons) and she gave me a very dirty look, snatched the medical report I had brought with us from my hands, glanced at it, asked one more question to my guest, and then snapped back that it was fine. And then left.
After a little more waiting the doctor finally arrived. He demanded to know who I was and only once I said I worked at the homeless shelter she was staying at and my guest gave a look that clearly indicated she was fine with my being there (and on the forms I filled it out, with her permission, we indicated that all medical information about her could be released to me). He then asked her why she was there, and when she again said she wasn’t sure he made a joke with her. Finally, for the first time all day, she was treated like a person. It was still not with the warmth that a doctor would normally treat me, but I can understand that he had already had a very long morning, and honestly I’m not always great at being friendly with our guests when I’m tired either. He did a short exam on the places she said hurt her. He then prescribed a pain medicine and was ready to leave, but he could see on my face that I was not done yet. I asked him about the same thing I asked the nurse about from the medical record and he looked slightly annoyed but covered it quickly and asked what I was specifically talking about. I said that we were confused and needed to understand clearly. After demanding that he fully consider what he was reading (as he seemed ready to wave away the concern as well) he said he would do a test so that we could understand, because the previous notes weren’t conclusive about it. We left having no idea when that will take place. We thanked the doctor for his help and returned to the waiting room to wait for the medicines she would be receiving. Finally, at 12 they were brought out and we were the last patients to leave.
She left quite happy that she got some medicine and very happy about how friendly the doctor was. She recalled her experience at the hospital when the medical confusion first started and that doctor had told her that her health urgently depended on an operation or else she would die. Her response was that she couldn’t afford something like that, specifically saying, “No tengo dinero. Voy a morir.” Or “I don’t have any money, so I will die.” The doctor just left it at that and discharged her from the hospital. He didn’t explain to her that health is a fundamental right and that money didn’t matter, as the public hospital would be obligated to do the life-saving surgery no matter her ability to pay. Instead he let her leave, sincerely believing she was about to die. Thankfully he was wrong, as at least so far she is still very much alive and active considering her age.
But I was angry about both experiences. Angry at the hospital doctor for apparently not valuing the life of a homeless woman enough to explain to her that they would do the operation even if she couldn’t afford it. Angry that just because the clinic exclusively serves homeless people that they can’t treat each and every patient with dignity. Angry at policies that no middle class person would ever be okay with (forcing everyone to show up at the same time and then forcing them to wait for hours), but because it’s just for the homeless it’s suddenly somehow okay.
Let me just say, it’s not okay! Being homeless doesn’t make you less of a person. At all. I take pride in the fact that my organization does strive to treat all guests with the dignity and respect they deserve, simply because they are fellow human beings. They are guests in the house that we run to help them, and we use that language each and every day. I’m very glad and appreciative that this clinic exists, but I’m not okay with the approach to human life that I saw many of their employees and policies use. Just think, this is an organization that sets out to specifically help the homeless. I can’t bear to think how awful the health care and other providers like the hospital must be for the woman who has learned to sigh, close her eyes, and simply wait for others to make the decisions that affect her life.