Years ago, as a district nurse, I use to walk my dog at lunchtimes in the local park where a homeless man befriended my dog. He was drawn to my Labrador, Tess, and would never let us by until he’d had a little stroke. Initially, we talked about the weather. Over time, I would sit on the park bench alongside him. Joe told me his life story, he had held down a professional job, had a detached home in a “well to do area”, he had a wife and a son. He was long estranged from his family and the lifestyle he’d had by over 10 years. In his eyes, the stress and expectations of that very lifestyle had caused his “ruin”.
He would watch the world go by and comment on the bustling people passing by with those very same lifestyles, and he would reflect on the simple things in life. Warmth, food shelter and friendship without prejudice and unconditional love and that’s why, I think he was drawn to my dog. Joe had a cough, he never stopped coughing. He had sores on his fingers, face and ankles.
Some locals were kind to Joe like the local Italian restaurateur who gave him left over pasta and pizza at the back door. When it was freezing he would sleep in a little chapel the local clergy left open for him. Others were not so kind and would send him on his way as they did not want his presence near their business so not to put people off. He was once attacked at night, he couldn’t defend himself against the younger man and when I saw him sometime later he had black eyes and bruising to his lips.
He would never be drawn into coming to the surgery. I had to tread carefully at times not to over step the mark by mentioning any medical intervention. I was sure he had a lung cancer with the symptoms he had and more convinced when he began to lose weight. And then I didn’t see him for about 10 days.
One dark winter evening when I was driving past the park I saw the blue flashing lights of a police car at the park gates and an ambulance along one of the walkways. I just knew it! It must be Joe! I was right. He had died and been found by someone in the park. The policeman wouldn’t let me in even when I told them that I knew Joe and I said “I was his nurse”. And then I thought about what I had said and realised I wasn’t his nurse. I hadn’t nursed him at all. All I had ever done was to sit with him, pass the time of day and share the pleasure of my dog with him.
I sometimes reflect on this as a nurse especially people who are dying when we can’t “do” any more for them but as human beings we can at least “be” with them.