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Korn Learns about Poverty when She Least Expects It

By Jillian Korn

Korn with fellow interns Forester (Hendrix College) and Allen (Centre College).

Before I began my internship at So Others Might Eat (SOME), I was looking forward to all of the medical experience I would gain from spending eight weeks in a clinic. I was excited to learn about the unique challenges that arise when working with under-served populations. While I did gain a lot of insight into these issues, I learned a lot more outside the clinic than I ever would have imagined.

I expected my second to last day to be typical. I would help distribute groceries in the morning then lead my health education group and spend the rest of the day helping and shadowing in the clinic. However, I was assigned to accompany one of the members of our drug rehabilitation program. Before members go to the SOME facility in West Virginia, they live together in a house until there is an opening in the program. They typically chaperone one another on errands so they are less tempted to use. In this particular case, I was given the opportunity to accompany a patient for the day.

As Emily* and I left the clinic building, we were greeted by the hot, humid, DC air. In an effort to keep our minds off of the sweat that immediately began beading on our foreheads, Emily and I chatted as we walked. She told me about her struggles with addiction, homelessness, and her family. My heart broke for her as she opened up to me with the details of her life. During the previous weeks I heard snippets of the lives of the homeless that the clinic served. We frequently asked patients, “Where have you been staying?” Answers ranged from shelters, to the streets, to emergency department waiting rooms. However, nothing I heard before impacted me as much as when Emily and I passed a highway underpass. As I glanced at the rolled up belongings of those who resided there last night, my companion turned to me and said, “I used to sleep there. I had two blankets, but it still got cold at night, even in the summer.” I walked by this bridge multiple times a week and thought of the people who were forced to sleep there, but being there with one of them brought a whole new rush of feelings.

We continued on to our first stop, affectionately called “the food stamp place” by many of our clients. We had to go to social services to have Emily’s identification verified in order to complete her application for Medicaid. Typically, this can be done online, but Emily had to go in person since she was previously incarcerated. We sat in the waiting room for three hours. To pass the time, we counted how many people were called in each half hour. As we sat, Emily counted on her fingers to see how many people were left to go before her. I was deeply saddened that this adult woman could not do the simple subtraction in her head. I wondered how our education system let someone go through without being able to do simple arithmetic. Finally. it was our turn. Relieved that the wait was over, we rushed to the counter. After explaining what we needed, the woman at the desk replied, “We don’t do that here.” Emily and I were stunned and both completely helpless. Neither of us understood the system well enough to question it. Disheartened, and with three less hours in our day, we left for our next and final stop.

As we walked, Emily saw at least five people she knew. It was truly uplifting to see how excited her friends were when she told them she was getting clean. I was excited to see that she would have a support system to return to once she finished the program. Finally, we arrived at the free pharmacy to pick up Emily’s prescriptions. These were expensive drugs, so SOME could not cover them. Instead, we referred her to this government-subsidized pharmacy. While we waited for her scripts to be filled, Emily visited with one of the administrative assistants who has worked there for years. She invited me in to chat too. Based on the conversation, I could tell that this was not the first time that Emily has tried to stop using. This woman applauded Emily for her effort, but made it clear that Emily should take full advantage of this opportunity both for her own health and because she is responsible for her son’s well-being. When we told her about our difficulties at Social Services, the woman directed us to a social worker who could help. When we left the pharmacy, we had accomplished both tasks that we set out to do for the day.

After the last of our long, hot walk, Emily and I said our goodbyes. She thanked me repeatedly for being there with her. I did not realize how much of an impact I made just by being there with her through the day. Emily told me she was grateful that she had someone to tell her story to, and it seemed that by sharing it, her desire to stop using was strengthened and reaffirmed.

This is one of many times during my internship I learned something when I least expected to. At the beginning of the walk, I just thought I would be running errands with someone. Instead, I had the chance to accompany a woman who lives in poverty and see firsthand some of the many struggles she faces every day. This experience opened my eyes to primary care, and has begun my journey of providing medical care for the under-

served. Recognizing the struggles that the impoverished and homeless face and remembering that even small gestures, like listening to a person’s story are important lessons I plan to bring forward with me in my life and in my future career as a physician.


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