No one likes to work on a holiday, especially when it seems the entire world has the day off to relax. Yet, there I was on Labor Day, 2009 heading into Joseph’s House, my AmeriCorps placement. Prior to attending medical school, I thought I could develop more passion for the field by dedicating a year of my life to service. I was accepted into an AmeriCorps program that placed me at a hospice home for homeless men and women dying of HIV/AIDS in Washington D.C. It was my second week at Joseph’s House and with each day came new realizations for a student interested in medicine.
After breakfast and bed baths were finished, Patty, the director of Joseph’s House, invited me to come with her to Providence Hospital. We were to meet Sheryl, a woman suffering from AIDS, to see if we could provide care for her. Patty pulled up in the white Joseph’s House van and we drove out to the hospital in Northeast Washington. The building itself was huge and seemed even larger on a vacant holiday. Patty and I took the elevator to the fifth floor and we met with a nurse on the floor. There was probably a physician and two nurses in the entire wing that day. The nurse directed us down a long dark hallway to Sheryl’s room, opened the door and I followed her and Patty into the room.
Upon entering, I saw an image that would never leave my mind. There was Sheryl, a 43 year-old African-American woman, all 70 pounds of her in a hospital gown, struggling to move from her chair to her bed. It was shocking that she was even standing on her own. It must have taken a lot of courage to even attempt it. Her legs and arms were rail-thin, covered in tiny round black spots. The nurses excused Patty and I for a moment while they situated Sheryl in her bed. While waiting in the hallway, I remember feeling incredibly sad. It was Labor Day and I had wanted the day off. Yet here was Sheryl. She could never take a day off from her struggle until the finality of her condition. Soon, we were welcomed back into the room.
“Hi Sheryl,” said Patty, as she entered the room. “We’re here from Joseph’s House, which is a home for sick people. We wanted to come here and meet you.”
As Sheryl laid in bed with her big brown eyes scanning us from her left to her right, she looked as if she were a little kid. Sheryl turned to me and in her raspy voice, asked me a question I was not prepared to answer.
“I have AIDS. Can you tell?” “No,” I almost immediately replied. It was a gut reaction for me to answer no so quickly. It was as if I was denying the reality in which I had entered. Sheryl clearly had AIDS. However, for me, this was a new setting and I did not know if it were the place for me to say that Sheryl had AIDS.