For the past 6 years I have worked as a public health nurse in state government, promoting health access and prevention in under-served communities. There is a rule in state government; unspoken but implicitly understood: The ‘60 Minutes‘ rule. If anything you’re doing could end up on 60 minutes then you may want to reconsider the wisdom of the activity. The last thing the state wants is a front page news article on questionable activities of one of their employees.
This crossed my mind last week as I walked to the subway heading home from work. It was mid-week, cold, and I was reasonably excited to get home. The area where I work is in a fairly congested part of Boston. While no comparison to larger metropolitan areas, for the city of Boston this stretch is busy and densely populated. Located right on the Freedom Trail, 2 blocks from Boston Common and one block from the historic King’s Chapel the area sees a variety of colorful personalities daily. Dark-suited white-collar bankers get coffee along side construction workers. Students of all ages from all over the world bump into ever-present tourists with vague lost looks on their faces, and always the homeless. No one really thinks about it – the homeless are just there, like guards at every street corner, carrying cups for spare change.
As I quickly walked, dodging people and vendors, there in the middle of the sidewalk was a woman who’s back was to me. She was small and thin with long hair, greying both from age and circumstance. A sign hung from her shoulders down her back, the words “Hungry, Homeless, Diabetic, Neuropathy” written in large red magic marker. I passed by thinking about something far more pressing in my world and at the end of the sidewalk stopped. I suddenly realized what I had witnessed and ignored. Her legs were black from disease, open sores showing above a bandaged area, she was shaking in the cold, and we were all pretty much avoiding her. No lets change that: I was pretty much avoiding her.
The ’60 Minutes’ story flashed through my brain:
“Nurse travels 10,000 miles to help flood victims in Pakistan but ignores homeless woman on doorstep”.
It was a distressing headline to see, it was even worse when it went from my head to my heart. How was I going to defend my actions and my apathy when faced with a headline that damning?
The end of the story is that I did go back – I wish it hadn’t taken the egotistical fear of being publicly caught and shamed. I’m hopeful that next time it won’t. “Truly what you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did unto me”.