Monday, February 04, 2008

Baby it's cold outside

Written by: Nurse James, Drop-In staff

The recent cold snap in Calgary has left me with many emotions and some mixed feelings.

I have seen more than a few of our clients for frostbite, and some people that were not our clientele who were just looking to get in from the cold. I have learned a few things about the human spirit these past few days.

People are a lot more resilient than we are led to believe.

I talked with a client who had been outside in the cold shoveling snow for almost an hour. He only had on a thin pair of woolen mittens that looked like they were some years old. He came in to warm up his hands for a few hours, and then was going to go back out in the cold to make more money doing snow removal. I offered to get him some better gloves and he declined. His hands actually looked very frostbitten at first, and I thought he was in danger of losing at least one of his fingers. He was very humbled that I would take the time to offer my services, never mind make a few suggestions as to how he could stay safe. After about twenty minutes of me examining and talking with him, he chose to walk away, stating he would be all right. His fingers looked OK and I suggested he wait until the wind stop howling at least…he just gave me a sly grin and said he was fine.

I could not help feeling that I wanted to force him to stay indoors, but I have no authority to stop anyone in their right state of mind from doing what he or she wants.

This last week in total I have assessed and evaluated seven people for frostbite. Not too bad I guess when you have over a thousand people a day coming into our building.

Some were not so bad, two needing advanced medical attention. The not so bad ones just required them to stay indoors for the next day or so, else they would risk doing some real damage. They were the lucky ones, just needed a bit of warmth and maybe a warm shower and they would be OK, as long as they did not venture out in the Minus 32 temperature again.
With the wind chill we reached a staggering Minus 44 Celsius. Cold enough to freeze exposed skin in less than a minute. Scary stuff when you have a warm bed, a vehicle to let warm up before going to work. A cell phone in case your car breaks down. Terrifying when you don't.

Calgary's homeless citizens do not have these luxuries. Some have not even got what I would call safe clothing for this type of weather. [Ed. note: Our staff attempt to give clients appropriate clothing whenever we see someone venturing outside without warm apparel.] And we are only just beginning February. We have at least two more months of potential cold weather after February.

So what happens to our clients and those who seek us out? They continue to bottle pick in the alleys, or they continue to work the outside labor jobs that no one else is willing to do for the money that they are paid.

One man in particular touched my heart this past week. He was standing outside of a convenience store, he was opening and holding the door for the customers. When there was no-one going in or out, he was shoveling the walkway with a cheap plastic shovel. His pay? Occasionally a customer would give him the change that they received from their purchases. Nothing that special right? Except that it was minus 31. The wind was blowing 30km/h, the windchill in the minus 40's.

I did recognize him as one of the city's homeless citizens, but he was not one of our regular or steady clients. He was dressed in what I would call the absolute bare minimum for this type of weather. Thin gloves, holes in his jacket and thin pants.

Why did he impress me and at the same time depress me? His age was the major factor here. I felt so helpless and ashamed that I had a place to go home to. This guy standing out here freezing his fingers and toes for small tips was at the very least past 65 years old. No home, no family, no decent clothes and a cheap plastic shovel to make his tip money with.

Resilient, yet proud because he was earning his meager wage instead of begging.

I pray that we see no deaths from the cold, I pray that our clients do not lose fingers and toes this year, as so many have in the past. I pray that we find a better way for our seniors and addicted to find proper care and lodging.

I pray…

Written by: Nurse James, Drop-In staff