Julie Donalek, nurse to the poor | Bleader

Julie Donalek, nurse to the poor

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First-person accounts from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford

I'm a retired nursing professor. I run a weekly clinic for very-low-income people. Sometimes another nurse or a social worker comes in to help. I can't prescribe medications, and I don't manage people's health care. I provide basic treatments, along with referrals to local providers. There are agencies that provide care to these people, but getting them connected is challenging. There's an agency that says you have to have a notarized record that you're homeless. Isn't that fabulous?

Jimmy [name changed] is one person who shows up. He's had several strokes, diabetes, clots in his lungs. Very intelligent, very ill. One time he said, "I need new glasses. My eyesight's so blurry." I said, "Let's do your blood sugar," and it was well over 600—an oh-my-God blood sugar. I said, "Let's go to the emergency room." He said, "No, I want to go to Cook County." If people don't want to do something, I can't make them do it. So I walked him over to the Damen Avenue bus and put him on, and I said to the bus driver, "Let him off at Cook County Hospital." This is not how you normally practice health care.

I've had several people come in and say, "I don't feel well," and they're very, very pale. I ask them, "What color are your bowel moments?" They say, "It's funny that you asked me that. They're real black." I say, "You might be bleeding in your gut someplace. You have to see somebody right away. You can't put this off."

Some of our people are chronically mentally ill, but it's unusual to see someone who is agitated or delusional. Most of the time, it's younger people who say, "I don't need the medication," and then they get very ill and they're back in the hospital. By the time we see them at the clinic, they're the middle-aged people who stay on their medications.

I had a horrible experience. A guy comes in and says, "My legs are all swollen, and they're very painful." And then he said, "Oh, I'm coughing up blood." I said, "What you need to do is go to the emergency room. Bring something to read; it'll take you hours to be seen." As I'm going home, I'm seeing him and his friend walking. The best I could do for him is send him on a mile-and-a-half walk of pain to an emergency room where they won't want to see him. That stinks. I still think about seeing that man walking down the street.

People will come for months and months, and then they're not there. We have no way of locating them or knowing what happened. It's kind of like the window opens, and you see a little bit of the person's life, and then the window closes again.

I always feel like I have a secret, and that's that I know these people that everybody else looks down on, and I enjoy their company. I'll be driving down the street with my husband, and I'll roll down the window and say hello to somebody on the street who's clearly mentally ill, because he's a friend of mine.

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