“You have to help me! He’s out there! He’s in the waiting room and he’ll hurt me, he promised he would. Please just admit me to the hospital or something – just get me out the back door so he doesn’t know ….”
These were the words that greeted me as I swung into the clinic room, hand outstretched, to introduce myself to my new patient. She was gaunt, dirty, disheveled and wide eyed. She looked much older than my papers said she should. As her words tumbled out and she cowered, shaking, in the corner chair I have to admit that my first thought was that she was likely not sober. But there was something about her eyes. Her eyes were wide and clear. She was talking fast, but very coherently. She grabbed my hand before I had a chance to do anything else with it, and held on tight. Really tight.
Well ok, I thought. Where to begin. Are you safe? Has he hurt you? Do you have somewhere to go? Do you really have a cardiology problem I can help you with? Is there anyone in your life who loves you?
As we worked our way through these things (as well as the fact that she had a pacemaker with a soon-to-be outdated battery, and absolutely no medical records with her from her out of state physicians), her story began to slowly unfold.
She had family across the country but she was estranged from them – maybe not permanently, but she wasn’t sure. He was indeed in the waiting room, and he was abusive to her. She was ready to leave him but needed help. He was wanted by the police. Thankfully there were no children involved.
The clinic manager got involved, and the man got ancy, pacing back and forth trying to see down the hall where we were. The police ended up coming to see what was up, and he ran away – turns out he was wanted and didn’t have a license.
The horrible thing was this. There was nowhere for this woman to go.
I called women’s shelters from ten (TEN!) counties around us. I called homeless shelters. Everyone was solicitous and concerned, but nobody had a bed. Some who had beds wouldn’t take her because she was from another county. Nobody had any ideas. Some took up our valuable afternoon time by taking her entire history and promising to call back – but then couldn’t commit to helping her.
It turns out she was diabetic and hadn’t eaten in quite some time, so the clinic nurses brought her food. She was appreciative but seemed so beaten down – like a shell inside her overly tanned, dark skin. It was only her eyes – those beautiful eyes – that showed signs of life.
As the afternoon wore away with my making phone calls in between other patient visits, I started to feel quite anxious. What was I to do if I couldn’t find her shelter for the night? What would become of her?
I called the social worker in our Level I Trauma Center who turned out to be an absolute knight in shining armor. He didn’t know of any placement options either, but he agreed to help. A taxi was sent to fetch her, and we escorted her out the back door of the clinic (in the dark). He met her at the ED, and she was given shelter and direction.
I expected not to see her again. My frustration grew that in our rich and privileged area, we had no options for helping a woman in need that day. Knowing that so many battered women go straight back to their abusers because their self-esteem is shattered and they don’t realize that they deserve better. Sadly, I suspected that she would go back to him. I thought that my quiet words of support and encouragement were falling on ears that had already believed lies for too long.
I left, and went to my warm and welcoming home, with my wonderful husband, children, and dogs. I felt so blessed, but also a little cold inside when I thought of her.
Turns out, there was a miracle. Several months later I got a quick note from one of our EP docs I had referred her to. She asked him to let me know that she was ok. She did NOT go back to him. He left town, and her estranged sister and mother came to help her. She was living with them and had a job. And a new pacemaker battery. And more importantly, she had hope.