"Dear friends and family,
"Packed together like Sardines in a can", is an expression that we often heard used to describe a situation such as exists on subway trains during the morning and evening rush hours in cities (like New York, where I spent the first 20+ years of my life). Of course, exotic and remote places like TOKYO, are often taken as examples and shown in films to illustrate the hectic and crowded pace of life in the 20th Century. But here in Biloxi ? Well, yes, here in Biloxi, former population 50,000, now 50% part- time residents and volunteers, the other 50%, old-timers who have managed to survive Katrina with their homes liveable.
Yesterday, 5 Hands On volunteers and I were introduced to GERRY, who lives in a storm-surged VAN (that's VAN, as in motor vehicle, not CAN, as in "sardine"). Virginia, his neighbor and local street "Kingpin" as Gerry called her, met Elizabeth (from Ohio) and I as we made our rounds on Lilly street in east Biloxi. Virginia, a recipient of a free winter coat on a cold and cloudy November morning, remembered me as "Mr. Bob, the doctor with Hands On USA". She wanted to show me the 'loaner' house she was camped out in, pending its demolition later this week. It was then that Virginia was forward enough to ask if I would "look in on Gerry, who was a very sick man". On the lot next to the one on which the 'loaner' house stood, was a storm ravaged van, former property of the owner of the lot on which the van sat, askew, 25 feet from the street, surrounded by a lone tree and the residual debris of the house once standing nearby. The "house" had been toppled or crushed and carted off by the contractor hired by FEMA and the City of Biloxi to eliminate all of the "dangers to health and safety" - former houses and "radical makeovers" created by the powerful and destructive forces of Katrina's nature.
Two neighborhood friends of Gerry's sat under the tree, visiting (or in vigil) with Gerry, who himself lay on one of the van's bench seats, turned sideways and facing the open sliding passenger door of the van - a rearrangement of the 'furniture' that permitted Gerry to exit and enter the Van more readily. You see, Gerry has become so short of breath from his Emphysema, High Blood Pressure, Congestive Heart Failure, and the other ravages of deconditioning, depression and repeated hopitializations, as to render him a disabled cardio-pulmonary cripple.
Gerry lay flat on his side, his face a pasty bluish hue, his breathing shallow and rapid, and his eyes closed, not in sleep for he was easily aroused by Virginia's greeting, but perhaps so as to mute his discomfort, and to shut out the world around him which, except for a few faithful and watchful neighbor-friends, offered him little ease.
Gerry sat up, with a pained and stiff effort, and acknowledge our greeting with a hoarse and weak voice. Like almost all the residents we encounter on our Street Team rounds, his initial reply to our "How 'ya doin", was to say, " well sir, I'm makin' it: takin' one day at a time, jest as it come" I t was obvious that Gerry was barely doing that - hanging in there, on the fine tightrope of advancing age and advancing disease, up where the slightess breeze could, at any moment, blow you down. He next told how his "biggest" problem right now was that he couldn't feel anything in his feet and legs, and that they were so weak, and he so "short on breath' with the least exertion - such as exiting the van to walk the few feet to a make shift biffy in order to pee - and dreading the awful minutes after such exertion that revealed in all its pathetic fullness, just how miserable a body his heart and soul was condemned to live in.
The van is a wreck, remaining in place at the oversight, or the mercy, of the demolition crew who were here just a day or two ago. Yet this is home for Gerry, surrounded by caring friends and visiting (and now caring) volunteers.
For two years before Katrina made him a displaced person and cast his lot among the thousands of healthier folk evacuated to "safety", he was a resident at the Veterans Administration Long Term Care facility in Gulfport. The facility is located near Beach Boulevard and faces the Mississippi Sound (Gulf of Mexico). Two hours before Katrina made landfall the director of the Home gave an evacuation order. Buses and other vehicles were hastily commandeered, and the residents were taken to a temporary triage building on one of the nearby military installations. A day or tow later they were moved, en masse to a Shelter. It was there that Gerry and the other 'sardines' spent a few weeks, until ad hoc FEMA 'social workers' could "assist them with placement in alternative housing. The choices were neither convenient nor local, and therefore, not attractive. Gerry chose to take his chances, and to go "home". It was then a friend was approached and offered Gerry the VAN.
It must be one thing to be one lowly sardine packed into a can with a dozen others, than to be one sardine in one can, alone. Gerry opted for the latter; who could blame him ? Neighbor-friends have called 911 twice in the past 65 weeks, and each time Gerry has been hospitalized at the VA hospital in west Biloxi. The VA hospital, situated as it is in the Katrina district, is not op[erating at full capacity, nor is it fully staffed or supplied - yes, even 6 months after Katrina came by. Gerry was discharged on Feb, 23rd, with a supply of the 10 medications he needs, and an order for oxygen "to be sent to his home". There is no oxygen in the van. Did the supplier not receive the order? Did they ignore it because other, more important, veterans need it first? Was the delivery truck unable to find his house because all they could see, when he was out cashing his benefits check, was an old wreck of a Van lying on the lot, and no one could be living in the debris pile that was once the house? Yes, Gerry does have a clearly marked mail box, at the sidewalk, with the house number on it.
Two days ago, again when Gerry was take for a ride by a neighbor, someone entered his van and took all his medication pills, leaving only his inhaler - a drug seeker or supplier, no doubt. Desperate Katrina victims preying on other victims, Two weeks earlier, shortly after discharge for the hospital, two strangers entered his van, while Gerry was sitting in it, and with threat to violence walked off with the $700 he had just that day brought back to the Van after cashing his benefits check. "It was stupid of me to do that, but I need the cash and didn't know where else to stash it, so's I could get at it easily".
Last night I shared Gerry's story and our observations, with the other Volunteers (260 of us 'packed like sardines' in our dining hall). Today I will get him a temporary supply of medications (it will take a week for the VA clinic to have his pharmacy request ready for pick up). Three others will visit him at his van and see what they can do to clean and straighten up the place,including laundering his pile of clothing and blankets. Others have already arranged to "build" some kind of sheltering roof over the Van, and perhaps a bench, so that visiting friends don't have to sit in Gerry's wheelchair (which the VA managed to deliver to his address 2 weeks ago). I heard enough feed-back after last night's report at HQ to sense that other help will be coming: Jonathan from Virginia wants to take Gerry to the VA clinics and , if possible pick up his oxygen, which Gerry desperately needs to use to forestall his demise, at least needs so that he can lie down and sleep at night.
What more we witnessed on our Street Rounds yesterday testified to the gracious beauty of neighbor helping neighbor, the love of family, the realization that, despite nearly overwhelming losses, in is within our God-given power to rise above our pain and suffering, discover that which is truly necessary and important to a whole and healthy life, and to find some ray of hop and happiness. As we said our temporary good-bys to Gerry yesterday, he sat up, smiling and even pink in color, and thanked us over and over for coming to visit him - and he, as yet, knows nothing about what more we will bring to his SARDINE HOME in the days ahead. No matter, the finest gift we can give him, and all the residents here, is a very simple one - it is our very presence and our concern. Gerry's neighbors, who have precious little themselves, showed us the way. There is little we cannot do, if we see Katrina's devastation with a human face.
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
A guest blogger: Dr. Bob
This is from Dr. Bob. He is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. He is a regular at Handson.