Through the Cracks

A certain part of our society is always in danger of slipping through the web of services, assistance and care designed to keep people healthy, functioning and safe.  Be it because of mental health issues, lack of economic income or by choice, this percentage of our citizenry is constantly monitored.

But still, they slip through, even if only for a short time.

Years ago, my partner and I were sent on a call to cover our Mental Health Car, a unit pairing of a police officer and a mental health nurse.  They were checking up on a patient who had been deemed ‘appropriate for outside living’ as long as he was monitored bi-weekly.  The unit had received a call from the building manager of the rooming house where the man lived, complaining of the weird noises and smell coming from the man’s room.

Upon our arrival at the front desk, it was clear the manager was glad to see all of us.  He further explained that he had not been able to get John (not his real name, but it’ll do for this post) to answer his door in the last several days.  With only a sink and no toilet facilities in the room, the manager said the reek coming out from the room was horrible.

John’s room was up two flights of stairs in the T of a long hallway and as we approached my partner turned to me, his nose wrinkled in disgust.  We were still 20 ft from John’s door and the manager was right – the stench was awful and I feared John might be dead.

We gathered outside and stood quiet for a few moments.  From the other side of the door was a faint buzzing, like a radio tuned to static.  The nurse knocked and called out John’s name.  The only answer was the muffled shuffle of something moving along the floor, so the nurse knocked again.  Nothing.  Just another bump.

Taking the key from the manager, one of us unlocked the door, calling out John’s name and telling him we were the Mental Health Car and the police.  As the door swung open the stench from inside exploded out in a black cloud.  Flies.  Hundreds of them.

Not a good sign.  So imagine the look my partner gave me when a man’s voice croaked out from inside the room.

John was very much alive.

Tucked into a corner, sitting with his knees bent up to his chin, was John.  He looked to have been in the same spot for days; the floor beneath him was stained with urine and feces.  His were clothes stiff and filthy.  Flies buzzed about him, alighting on his arms and face.  The room was in complete disarray, with food rotting in the sink, garbage littered everywhere, and what must have been a honey bucket, tipped over and spilling it’s rancid contents across the floor in a splash.  I had never seen such conditions before (or since), and that someone could actually survive for days was a wonder of human tenacity.

The nurse, paying no attention to the smell, went forward, bending low so as not to startle John.  The nurse was a big man with a gentle spirit, and he softened his deep tenor voice to speak soothing words to John.  In the same way music tames a wild beast, his voice had the same effect on John, and John’s eyes blinked alive.

________________

The smell of death ingrains itself into your skin, your hair, and your clothing.  Even after a shower and a change of clothes, the odor of decaying flesh lingers in your sinuses.  In this case, John was still with us, and was transported to a hospital for treatment of the gangrenous wounds to his legs caused by poor health and hygiene.

I drove home that night, deep in thought about the future of humanity when such atrocities exist among us.  John had slipped through the cracks.

We must do better by one another.

We must.

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