Unwrapping my fear to help a fellow human in need
“I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing,” I told myself as I slowly peeled away the layers of the dirty bandage wrapped around his foot.
Sitting on the sidewalk in the mid-afternoon, surrounded by passersby, a few beads of sweat dripped from my forehead onto the hot July cement that lined the streets of my neighborhood. I frowned in concentration as I slowly and carefully cut through the filthy tape that covered his toes.
Unsure of what I was about to find, I could practically hear my heartbeat pounding in my ears.
A short while earlier, I met Yves, a homeless and seemingly incapacitated man whom I found sprawled across the sidewalk as I walked home from the grocery store.
It wasn’t the first time I had seen a homeless man in my neighborhood. Although not a frequent occurrence, it’s not unusual to cross someone asking for money or a cigarette on my walk to the metro station. When I saw Yves, however, I immediately stopped in my tracks.
He was passed out in the middle of the day, clearly under the influence of some type of drug or alcohol. A pile of drool had accumulated on the sidewalk just underneath his mouth. I stood there for a moment, watching his chest, checking to see if he was actually breathing. After he inhaled and exhaled a few times, I continued walking home, groceries in hand.
I don’t know why, but in that moment I felt a strong pull to turn around and try speaking to him. And if there is one thing I have learned over the past 31 years, it’s to move when I feel moved. To not hesitate when my soul is shouting at me to pay attention to something or someone. And in this moment, that someone was Yves.
“Sir, are you hungry? Sir…can you hear me?”
Yves opened one eye and slowly started to regain consciousness.
“Do you want some food? Are you hungry?” I again repeated.
“Hot food. I want to eat something hot,” he replied.
He tried sitting up a bit, and I joined him on the ground to be able to look at him squarely in the eyes.
“Okay, hot food, you got it. What else? Is there anything else you need?”
After a long pause, Yves replied, “A blanket. I lost mine in the train station when they kicked me out.” His speech was slurred and it was tough to make out what he was saying, especially in a language that was not my mother tongue.
Glancing down at his feet, I noticed one of them was covered in a makeshift bandage that clearly had not been changed in a long time. “What happened to your foot?” I gently asked.
I could hardly understand his reply. Something about trying to wear a shoe that was too small for him, and it rubbed and irritated his toes. Or so I thought.
I don’t know what came over me, but before I even knew what was happening the words just poured from my mouth.
“Do you want me to change your bandage?”
Despite 15 years of experience working with homeless and other marginalized populations, I can confidently say that no such urge has ever come over me before. Perhaps it was yet another side effect of this past year living through a pandemic. In so many ways, I feel that my barriers have come crashing down. I realize more than ever how important it is to be kind, to have compassion, to lift each other up in this cruel, unforgiving, relentlessly difficult world.
Although he had been slurring his words and on the brink of unconsciousness only moments earlier, Yves suddenly seemed to understand what was happening. He gave me a poignant look straight in my eyes and said, “I’m ashamed.”
“Mais non, Yves. What do you have to be ashamed about? It’s fine. I’m here to help you. There’s a pharmacy right across the street. Do you want me to buy you some clean bandages and fix you up?”
Despite my insistence, he remained reluctant. “I’m ashamed,” he repeated.
“Okay then. I can also just buy you the bandages and antiseptic, and you can change the dressing yourself. Do you want to do that?” He slowly shook his head, no.
Raising my eyebrows ever so slightly, I pushed once more. “Do you want me to clean your foot, Yves?” After another long pause, he looked at me in the eyes and nodded yes.
“Well, here we go,” I thought. There’s no turning back now, I’m actually going through with this.
I returned about ten minutes later with some hot food, a spare blanket, a clean pair of socks and all the supplies I would need to disinfect and protect his foot.
I had no idea what I would find when I removed his bandage. However, when I finally cut it off, my heart stopped for just a second.
His toes were completely gone. Freshly amputated, from what I could tell. There was only an open wound. And in that moment, I understood why he had been ashamed to show me.
Immediately, feelings of regret and inadequacy flooded my thoughts. “Shit! Shit, shit, shit. I am totally unprepared for this. I’m not a nurse! The worst wound I’ve ever had to clean was a broken callous on my hand caused by too many pull-ups at Crossfit. This is definitely next level, and I don’t want to possibly cause more harm than good.”
I took a deep breath. Reminding myself that whatever I did was probably going to be better than the status quo — risking infection with his filthy bandage — I made my move.
Forcing the panic from my mind, I proceeded to spray disinfectant all over his foot and focused a little more on the place where his toes used to be. At this point, I could feel that people in the street were stopping to stare at us. One woman even kneeled down to give him some spare change. As Yves rested his heel on my thigh, I gently placed wads of gauze over the wound and, after a bit of a struggle, managed to cover it completely with self-sticking bandage.
I then placed a clean sock on his other foot, letting the injured one breathe a bit. Afterwards, he looked at me in disbelief and asked, “What did you say your name was?” I think he was finally starting to realize what was happening. For the briefest of moments, he had found someone who wanted to help.
Yves seemed to be in his fifties or sixties, although life on the streets tends to age you quickly. We proceeded to talk about his life and he revealed that he felt too ashamed to seek out his family in his current state. He had nowhere to turn but realized he was going down the wrong path.
I’ve worked with the homeless long enough to realize that I was not in any position to “save” Yves or make a substantial difference in his life. From the start, I knew that my intervention would be fleeting — a quick exchange from one human to another, lifting him up ever so slightly when he found himself at his lowest point.
And just like that, our time together came to an end. I gave him the little money I had on me at the time, and he tucked the bottle of disinfectant I bought in his jacket pocket for later. I went home and opened my Outlook account, ready to get back to work.
Later that day when I walked to the metro and crossed his path once again, I saw that he had pulled out my blanket from the blue Ikea bag in which I had packed it and managed to rest his newly bandaged foot on top of it. A hot meal, a clean foot, a soft spot to lay his head.
I hadn’t “saved” Yves, but I smiled to myself knowing that his afternoon would be just a little more comfortable than before our paths had crossed.
I write this story not to brag about my good deed for the day. In fact, I didn’t tell anyone about my encounter with Yves for a long time. But after some reflection, I realized that this was a significant learning moment in my life that I never want to forget.
Being brave doesn’t mean that you don’t have any fear. I was scared at what I might find underneath Yves’s bandaged foot, but I unwrapped it anyways. I was scared that I wasn’t skilled or knowledgeable enough to treat someone with such a significant wound, but I still tried my best to help him.
At the end of the day, we are all just humans. My role is not to judge him for the choices he made in his life which led him to his current state. I only wanted to lighten his load, even temporarily. I can’t solve his substance abuse issues, mental health problems or the systemic challenges that plague this city’s homeless populations each and every day.
But I can give him a hot meal, a clean foot, and a soft spot to lay his head.
And today, that is enough.