By Amanda Redhead
As a public health nurse, I spend my days in poverty stricken areas of the city.
I provide assistance and education to pregnant and parenting families who are struggling. Many of my clients are refugee and immigrant families. I will often spend a day seeing many different families, none of which will share a culture or language. I am thankful to have other agencies and interpreters to help be bridge the great gap that separates us. It is a beautiful and eye-opening job, but it can often be bleak. Some days the darkness that I see—people living in desperation, child abuse and neglect, and other horrors—seems to permeate everything and I struggle to find light or hope among the sadness.
There was a day where I found hope in the most unlikely of places.
That morning, I walked into a dilapidated, low-income apartment complex, one that I had frequented many times. I had many clients who lived there and battled with the landlords in a way that seemed often futile. There are many things that seem unsafe in the building, but our society often turns a blind eye when it comes to those living in poverty. I found myself shivering as I walked in, but not because of the cold. It was because of the eerie feeling inside of the dark and dirty walls.
As soon as my foot crossed the threshold of the building, sadness came over me. I whispered to my interpreter, who was once a refugee himself and now interpreted for nurses and social workers, that no one should live this way. He whispered back his agreement and, almost as an afterthought, told me that he, too, had lived here when he first came to America. He said he could not sleep because of the sirens and the sounds of violence that penetrated the night through the thin walls. He was grateful when he made enough money to leave.
On the floor of the shared hallway lay garbage several inches thick. Fast food wrappers, plastic bags and other debris likely left from the homeless population that would take shelter inside these hallways after dark. It was supposed to be a locked building, but in my seven years of public health nursing, I have never once seen these doors locked.
I shrugged myself and my nursing equipment away from the walls, which were covered in years worth of dirt and filth, as we drug ourselves up the narrow steps. Halfway up the first flight my interpreter and I paused to take in a single child-sized, red streaked hand print, bright against the dingy wall. I watched my interpreter make the sign of the cross over his chest and we continued to walk, while hoping and praying that the print was made of paint, not blood.
Those in poverty often live a fragile and frightening life, and we had each seen enough domestic and child violence to know that such things happened every day in this community.
People were scared and suffering here and I shuddered to think of what these walls had witnessed.
After slowly making our way up to the third floor of the rickety, crooked staircase, with a handrail so broken and dirty that I knew it was better for me not to touch it, we finally reached my client’s apartment. We knocked, but there was no answer. We stood and waited, knocking at intervals, hoping our clients would emerge and we could do the work that we came here for. As we waited, I felt myself imagining what it would be like to live in this foul space and my heart quivered; emotional and helpless with the knowledge that in the richest country in the world, some people still live in absolute squalor.
While we waited, my eyes swung over to the neighbor’s door. The filthy door was so broken on its frame that it barely shut; landlords were known to ignore such things in this part of town. I shivered to think of the lack of safety for the family inside in this neighborhood frequented by police sirens and gunshots. This door had not seen paint in many years and was covered in something sticky and brown. What caught my eye, however, was the single drawing of a child-like, simple castle. At the bottom of the single triangle of a castle was a word carefully pressed into the paper in pink crayon: hope.
I do not know if this was the name of the child who drew the picture, the name of the princess standing next to the castle or a simple reminder to keep striving.
I paused in the bleak surroundings, with tears stinging my eyes. In the middle of this darkness, I found light and, indeed, hope—in the torn paper drawing tacked on a dilapidated door by a child. I couldn’t help but think that if a child who lives in these circumstances, circumstances as bleak as any I have ever seen in America, surely I—with my many blessings—could seek hope, as well.
No matter your present circumstances.
Amanda Redhead is the nurse behind The Zen RN. By merging her loves of nursing and writing, she hopes to be able to reach more people than she can as a bedside nurse alone. She has written about such painful experiences as being a survivor of sexual assault and her history of depressive episodes to remind others that they are not alone in their struggles. A patient once introduced her as a “Nurse Warrior” and she has adopted that title as a way of life. She is an introvert who loves to connect from home. She can be found on Facebook.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak