Imagine being without health insurance. Most people just freak out at the thought, but for many people experiencing homeless it’s a reality. Imagine not being able to see a doctor when you need to or having to rely on emergency rooms when the illness is just too unbearable to handle anymore. Imagine having Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease but no medication available to you.
I had avoided doctors until I was hospitalized with diverticulitis and was introduced to a doctor I not only liked but trusted. Dr. Thomas came into my hospital room a few years ago. His bedside manner was soft and even though I was upset about having to be there he assured me it was life or death. I had panic attack after panic attack until I couldn’t bear it anymore, and I felt like I had to leave. The nurses each tried to get me to stay and I was polite and listened to each one, but it was overwhelming. I had to go. Dr. Thomas showed up at my door, and he assured me he’d run another scan to see if the medication was working that evening. I agreed and I never forgot what he said walking down the hall, “take a chill pill!” I laughed and stayed. That evening as promised another scan was taken. Within a few hours he came in and said I could go home tomorrow. Home? I had no home. How was I going to handle working and not being close enough to a bathroom? I had to choose a new spot and soon. I couldn’t wait until I got better, so I found a new spot.
Imagine knowing that something just isn’t right when you have numbness, tingling and weakness on your left side. It’s been going on for some time, but this particular day you wake up and it’s not getting any better. You go to the ER only to find out you’ve had a stroke. If life was hard before being homeless, it just got a whole lot harder. You’re admitted for two days then discharged back to the streets with instructions to follow up with a doctor. No money, no idea who you’ll see so, you just try going about your day hoping everything will be okay.
I tried to seek out those sliding scale places but I still didn’t make enough to be seen by a doctor. Luckily I found Neighborhood Health, which offers low cost or free services at several clinics scattered all over Davidson County. The staff there is very helpful, but stressed with so many patients and only a small number of allotted appointments. This has become the alternative for those non-emergency times, but for those emergency times you still have to seek out the local ER. I live in the Hermitage area and if an ambulance is called they won’t take you to the hospital of your choice like Meharry (aka Nashville General) where you’re registered as an indigent patient. My local hospital has labeled homeless people as “drug shoppers” and don’t take their illnesses seriously or give proper medical attention. With my first stroke the hospital didn’t even provide the tests to determine I had a stroke.
Recently we’ve been hearing more and more about rural hospitals closing with no where for homeless people to go but to another county hospital, which puts that hospital at risk of closing too. Pretty soon the only hospitals that will be open are the private ones — the money making ones. So, where is the care and compassion for those who can’t pay? Is medicine only about the dollar amounts and screw those who can’t pay?
County health departments can act as a type of healthcare with the low cost or free care, but every time you go in you must bring ALL of your documents making it an all day event. It’s easy for someone experiencing homelessness to lose important documents and medical records.
If you have Type 2 diabetes you have to check your blood sugar multiple times a day and take medicine regularly to keep it under control. Having no money means having no way to get test strips, meters, or medication. If you’re hungry and someone offers you something high in sugar you take it anyway, say thank you and woof it down. Hunger doesn’t consider diabetes or other health concerns. Ever go to a soup kitchen and ask for the diabetic lunch? They don’t have that, but you’re hungry so you eat whatever they have. When you’re working with limited funds and gift cards, you try to get as much food as your can without asking yourself if this sandwich will put you into that diabetic coma or agitate other health concerns.
Finding shelter, food and other necessities of life seem to take priority to a person’s health when you’re homeless or in that low income bracket. Kids need food and you need bus fare to get to a job that doesn’t pay enough for a home. There isn’t anything left over for healthcare.