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Carey Fuller Headshot

Staying Healthy While Homeless Is Easier Said Than Done

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Recently I had a cancer scare. For three months I couldn't explain the pain on my lower right side. Due to a family history with cancer, my doctor scheduled me for several tests which thankfully turned out negative for cancer but showed that I had ovarian cysts. Again because of family history, the doc wants to check again in six to eight weeks to monitor them. I was given a list of things to do to take care of symptoms like water retention including "lying in bed with my feet above heart level," something hard to do while living out of your vehicle. Add to this not being able to afford picking up a prescription and you have the recipe for a downward spiral while you're already down.

Then there's the homeless youth I've taken to the emergency rooms of local hospitals. One of the biggest stings they get is "go home and rest" after being diagnosed with strep throat since they live in tents in nearby woods during all kinds of weather. I watched a 15-year-old girl vomit uncontrollably outside a public library because she had a bad case of the flu and nowhere to go to recover. Maggie and I gave her fluids and anything else we could think of to help her feel better and that's how Maggie contracted a super flu virus that destroyed the good bacteria in her digestive system. When I took Maggie to see our doctor, he told us it would take six to eight weeks for her digestive system to fully recover and dairy products were going to be the hardest to digest so no dairy during her recovery time. During that time, Maggie could not stop regular vomiting or diarrhea but we got lucky. Thanks to donations during the holidays, we were able to find an inexpensive motel to stay at for a few weeks. What would it have been like if we hadn't?

If that isn't enough, I run into cancer patients out here that live in swamps, under bridges or in any woods they find in unincorporated areas of town. I recently met a man named Billy who has colon cancer, who told me what he's been going through as he is newly homeless. He told me he was shocked that he couldn't get into any of the shelters he called because they told him they have waiting lists but to keep calling back to let them know he needed help. Then he went through the VA to see if he could qualify for help and was recently turned down for housing due to lack of funding through an org called COMPASS. This didn't sound right to me so I called every vets group I could find and finally got in touch with a caseworker in Seattle. I forwarded this worker's phone number on to Billy and hope he called them. I almost didn't recognize Billy when I ran into him again, as he had lost so much weight that his face is thinner and more gaunt-looking. A friend of mine and I keep talking to Billy because he is losing all his hope and has repeatedly said he feels things would be better if he just committed suicide.

Being in a shelter also puts you at risk for getting sick more often. A homeless woman I befriended told me that every time she's been able to get into an emergency cold weather shelter, she always catches whatever is going around because there's no way to escape being exposed when put into a room with a bunch of other people who happen to be sick. Seems to me that the reason she's prone to viruses is because her body is already worn down from trying to stay warm while sleeping outside and constantly moving from one place to another and at her age, the longer she stays out here, the worse she'll get.

The only way I could express my feelings about watching her and other older folks struggling out here was to write a poem about it.

As she smiles

She took a table near a window
Hidden in a corner while sipping
A dollar coffee while waiting
For the rain to stop

Worldly possessions tucked
Into two plastic shopping bags
Sit near her feet
Resting

She stands to adjust her coat
Tucking one of many shirts
Back into place
It's cold and helps keep out
The wind

Silver tresses on her head
She slipped into a knot just before putting on her hat
It's time to go

Maybe tonight there's a chance
At the local shelter
The lines on her face move
As she smiles

She's too old to be out here
With nowhere else to go but
She hoists a bag onto her back
Nodding as she waved

And as she faded into the dark
I cried