In the last 30 odd days my wife and I have taken out two 75,000 dollar loans, refinanced our mortgage in the process, bought a house in Spokane for our son, bought the building next door to my clinic for future expansion, sold my shares in an old business investment. In the last 24 hours I’ve made arrangements for the care of a handful of sad undelivered pregnant patients, made some new keys for our new tenants, fixed a lock on a door, counseled with some friends, raked the leaves, made arrangements for some visiting doctors, finished some medical charts, given last minute instructions to my nurse, withdrawn some cash, deposited some checks, written checks, tried out a couple of 12 volt water pumps and wondered multiple times if these trips are worth the effort. Shelley, bless her, worked harder than I at getting ready and we both spoke of the same quandary as we sank into our airline seats. Is it worth the trouble of going half way around the world for a couple of weeks to help a few children, visit a few orphans, develop better water sources and food sources for strangers on another part of the globe? Isn’t there enough to do back at home?
Our lives are so incredibly busy and full and happy. This past week we, along with other interested people from the Colville area, launched a homeless project in partnership with a Spokane based organization called the Inland Northwest Fuller Institute for Homelessness. They caught my attention in their plans for building tiny homes for the homeless. We want to be a second manufacturing site in Colville for their organization. Not a free program, but an opportunity for homeless people to build themselves a tiny home alongside us. This partnership will keep their costs down, allow them to learn new skills, encourage training for marketable skills, allow them to step out of addiction or mental illness where appropriate, help to reduce adverse childhood events, and end poverty for them. Transform lives. It is one of the most exciting chapters of our personal lives, and we are only just getting started. The new homeowners will pay for the homes at no interest, payments of $300 or so per month over the course of seven years, and the money will be reinvested into the project.
The question of whether or not it is worth the trouble is an appropriate question of our trips to Africa. However, the same question could be asked of our project for the homeless. On the surface the answer is a clear, unabashed “no.” Why bother? What do we think we can accomplish in Africa? Or in Colville for that matter? Don’t I have enough to do managing a family practice, seeing patients who come through my doors every day, making a living, caring for my patients? Now a landlord? Restoring a house for my son just being released from prison? Taking care of things at home? It’s ridiculous. And overwhelming. Even a wonderful life can become too much of a good thing.
But here is what I am discovering. There is a promise that every good and honest doctor makes to his or her patients before they step into a practice, before we see patient without supervision. It is a promise, a covenant really, that I promise over every one of my patients before I know them. To the degree that I am able as a fellow human being, I will do you no harm. I will accept what is fair. I will not turn away the poor simply because they are poor. I will not take advantage of anyone, but will give my best advice regardless of the financial or other consequences to myself. I will put the welfare of my patients first before my own comfort.
The question that I am discovering is harder to answer is this: who then is my patient? Am I responsible only for those who come through the doors of my clinic? Or do I have a moral responsibility to those who cannot come, because they are fearful, or destitute, or too ill or impoverished or uninsured to come? Do I have any responsibility to them?
I think it is a fair question, and one that I am only beginning to answer. If I accept as my patients not only those inside my clinic walls, but also a portion of those who cannot come, then I must step outside my clinic in order to affect their lives, and I must ask the question of them, “what do you need from me? How can I serve you? What is causing your suffering?
A few weeks ago, on the 6th of October this year, I invited the community, anyone interested in the health of the communities in our area, to come together and talk with us about what they see. What are the greatest unmet needs in our communities and how are we addressing them. I asked everyone at that meeting 40+ in all, to answer three things- who are you, what do you see in our community that is causing disease, and what would you like to work on in the future? We developed a laundry list of unmet or incompletely met needs. From this meeting the Colville Homeless Project was born. Together we will accomplish far more than any of us could accomplish individually. It will be exciting and fun, and transformative and hard work and Shelley and I can hardly wait.
And here I am resting for a few days in Dublin, Ireland, ready to take on the next part of my journey to Rwanda and Kenya, having thoroughly enjoyed the company and culture of Ireland, and learning a bit more of the history of the Irish. Funny how you can think you know something, until you talk to the Irish. Suddenly the scales come off your eyes and you see things differently, because history told by the Irish is not the same history I learned in the textbooks. Depends on who’s writing, I suppose.
I’ve chosen to listen and try to understand the Irish from their experience and view of history, not because I’m Irish but because their point of view is valid, I like them and they have great music. I’ve chosen to listen to try to understand the homeless from their experience in life, not because I’m homeless, but because their point of view is important, I’ve chosen to make them part of my care, and because they are my community. I’ve chosen to listen and to try to understand orphans of a genocide in Rwanda and impoverished people in conflict in northern Kenya, not because I am African, but because their point of view is important, I’ve chosen to make them my patients, my friends, my neighbors. They cannot come inside my clinic doors, so I will go to them.
Does it matter to the Irish that I now see things differently, and I understand why Easter 1916 is so significant today to the Irish, and in particular to Dubliners, those who live on the street where we are now staying? I don’t know if it matters. It matters to me. I see things more clearly than when I came.
Does it matter to the homeless that I am thinking of them? I’d like to think that it does, if not today, then a year from now, or 5 years from now. I know that because of my work in the jail treating addiction, I have been made more aware of the links between homelessness, addiction, mental illness and poverty, children at risk. Because I have put my hands into the messiness of human life, it is changing me. I see things differently.
Does it matter to some local people in an obscure place called Kapedo that Shelley and I are four years into a peace project in northern Kenya, trying to find ways to connect development to a peace process between two tribes? I can say yes to this, though I don’t know exactly in what ways. I know that it is changing the way I see the world. I see an chance to purchase hand crafted palm branch weavings and sell them in the U.S. to support a few women who are trying to support their families with a little skill, where three years ago they were risking their lives to just get a few of these branches to weave because of the conflict between the tribes. Having heard the stories of the women who were risking their lives on that first trip in 2012, I realized that if I had it in my power to do something to relieve their suffering and change the way things were, then I must. A peace initiative was formed with our promise to them to bring financial and technical support to help them with the things that matter to them, and their promise to work on peace.
With the rat race and chaos and busy ness that have become our lives, I can only answer for myself. Carving out time to help the poor in their despair makes absolutely no sense. And it is precisely the right thing to do, for my soul and for theirs. What I don’t know today is whether or not I will get there. Our flight on Ethiopian Airlines out of Dublin has been cancelled, something about el nino and its effects on Africa, floods or something.