by Fabrizia Faustinella
I was working out on the second floor of the gym, where all the machines are. I was desperate to maintain good muscle tone, even if I didn’t seem to be genetically gifted in that department. From the large windows that looked upon the street and a beautiful green park on the outskirts of the medical center, I saw a man sitting at the bus stop. He was sitting inside the bus stop shelter on one of those hard benches, leaning forward with his head between his hands. He was wearing light-blue paper scrubs, stained and worn out. He was barefoot. I saw a pair of flip-flops on the ground right next to him, but he wasn’t wearing them, his feet too swollen to be comfortable in them. He looked exhausted and emaciated. A homeless man in his sixties or fifties, with nothing at all. Usually they have a couple of plastic bags or even a small suitcase or a grocery cart. He had nothing.
As I continued my workout, going from machine to machine, my eyes kept on looking in his direction. His hair and beard were ruffled. He looked like he could have been from Jamaica or from an island. I thought he had that kind of look to him, but who knows. I realized what I was doing. I was doing what I usually do when I see people with no home: I wonder how the whole thing started, since the day they were born. How did he end up on that bench with nothing at all? Did he ever have a home? Where was he from? What did he do in his younger years? Did he go to school, did he ever have a job? A family? What about his parents? Was he ever loved? Could he hold onto the memory of that love? Life is hard as it is. To go through it without any love, it must be unbearable.
When I left the gym, I drove right next to the bus stop. There was no traffic. It was Labor Day. I slowed down and looked at him but his eyes were closed. I saw a crunched, empty plastic bottle in the pocket of the scrubs. Nothing to drink anymore, nothing to eat. I stopped by the nearest fast food place and picked up meal combo #3, a bacon cheeseburger with fries and a regular Coke. I always tell my patients not to drink regular sodas, but I wasn’t going to restrict the caloric intake of this man. Given the circumstances, that would have been dumb, I thought. But then again, what if he had diabetes? Sometimes there is no winning…
I drove back and stopped in front of the bus stop. “Hey, sir! Sir!” He opened up his eyes and smiled at me. I said, “I have some food for you.”
He said, “I’m hungry, thank you.” He slowly stood up from the bench. He was unsteady on his feet, and I became afraid that he would fall.
I said, “Take it easy. Be careful.” He took a few steps and got to the car, to the window on the passenger’s side. He held on to the door, and I saw he was missing two fingers from his right hand. It must have been an old injury, as there were no visible scars anymore, no swelling, no evidence of recent trauma. I looked at him, straight into his eyes, and that is exactly what he was doing, looking at me, straight into my eyes. His eyes were warm and deep. So what happened to him? I thought.
He asked me, “What’s your name?”
“My name is B. What’s yours?”
“No, Earl, E-A-R-L. Earl.”
“Okay, Mr. Earl. Here, some food for you and a Coke and a bottle of water…” That was my water from the gym, but as I failed to get water from the fast food restaurant, I thought it would have been okay for him to drink out of it, as I don’t have any transmissible disease, and the water was good and cold and better than nothing in the scorching heat of late summer.
He slowly took everything and I was concerned that he would lose his balance. I gave him some money as well. He didn’t ask for it, but I thought, How is he going to get his next meal? I said, “Be careful,” and he said, “I will.” I waited for him to reach the bench again, which was only a few feet away. He did and sat down after stumbling a couple of times. I took a deep breath of relief. The last thing I wanted was for this man to fall and break something as he was trying to get the food I brought him.
I said, “Take care, Mr. Earl, be careful.” He smiled wide, all front teeth missing. He’s not going to last very long out there, I thought. He’s too weak. He’s obviously been in a hospital at some point in time, where he must have gotten the scrubs. He will pass out on a sidewalk sooner or later, out of weakness from not eating and dehydration. Right next to the biggest medical center in the world. Right in the middle of a major metropolis. Surrounded by civilization. He will get dehydrated, starve, and die right in the middle of so much richness and waste. How is this possible?
I drove home and could not stop thinking of him. Later that evening I saw a post on Facebook saying that things in life happen for a reason. Really? What’s the reason behind Mr. Earl’s demise? There are reasons why things happen, but no, things don’t happen for a reason. There are no reasons at all, I thought. There is so much misery all around us, how can people truly believe that things happen for a reason? Maybe that’s a mechanism of survival, a way to make sense of the disappointments and the hardships that we all go through in our lives. Human beings have a strong survival instinct and if they accepted the fact that we are all we have and that we’re all in it together, then we would look at each other differently and see beyond the colors, the religions, the tribes, the ethnicity, beyond the superficial differences. We would be able to see the core, which is the same for everybody, everywhere. We would see that all we need is love and acceptance and a more humane life.
Mr. Earl was yet another casualty of the system. He was out in the streets; he was parked on the sidewalk like an old, useless piece of furniture. Poor Mr. Earl. Sorry, we are not able to save you, to spare you from all your trials and tribulations, and treat you with the respect you deserve as a human being, as a member of our society of humans, a society that is not always humane. There must be a way, a better way. There must be a way to help the underserved and the unfortunate that goes beyond the efforts of a few good citizens and a few good institutions. Society can’t be savage at heart and let so many of her children go neglected and abandoned.
About the Author:
Fabrizia Faustinella is a physician. She grew up in Italy and moved to the United States to do research in human genetics. Currently, she practices as an internist in the Texas Medical Center in Houston. Her profession has added depth and breadth to her human experience and has enriched her life to a great degree. She has published numerous research articles and, more recently, she’s been inspired to write about her experiences in medicine in a number of patient-centered essays. Her many interests and hobbies include acting, gourmet cooking, gardening, traveling, and playing the piano. She is an avid reader and loves to stay physically active through dancing and regular exercise.