By Pierre Kobierski
I am always fascinated by the stories of those I meet on the streets of Santa Barbara. As I drove downtown on August 18th to meet Mark, one of our wonderful patients, I could not stop thinking of questions I wanted to ask him. When I arrived at our meeting spot, I sat at a table, pulled out my notebook, and filled a page with thoughts and questions. I wanted to know everything about Mark – or at least what he was comfortable sharing with me – and was worried I might bore him if I didn’t have anything prepared to talk about. As it turned out, Mark was happy to share his life story with me and ended up answering most of my questions on his own.
Right on time, Mark walked up to the table. It was our first time meeting but the way he smiled made me feel like I was seeing a dear old friend. We shook hands, sat down, and I asked him ate tell me his story. Over the next half hour or so, he told me about how he became houseless, his hobbies and goals, and his experiences with Doctors without Walls.
Mark, now fifty-six, grew up in the San Fernando Valley. In 2013, when he was working in a retail stock room in Oxnard, he was diagnosed with a double hernia. Although the nature of his work was physical, he dared not complain about his condition and kept on working as usual. Unfortunately, after about four months, his boss noticed his struggle and laid him off for fear of liability. Mark, unemployed and without a place to stay, went to live with his family in Santa Maria.
But he did not stay there long. The prevalence of drugs and gangs quickly made him want to leave. “One time,” he remembered, “I was sitting in front of the house with my family when a car drove by. All of a sudden, everyone around me ducked.” He was stunned. The constant anxiety motivated him to move to Santa Barbara, where he loved the people and the weather. He stayed at the Rescue Mission and started looking for work.
Sometime around then, on a Wednesday afternoon, he was hanging out in Pershing Park and was approached by Nicole Pham, a DWW volunteer and Companion Care coordinator. She asked him if he needed any medical help. He told her he would like to see a dentist.
“Are you serious about getting your teeth fixed?” she asked him.
“Yes,” he answered.
“Okay,” said Nicole, “then I will pick you up tomorrow right at that bench.”
Nicole has since taken him to three dentist appointments, and now, Mark told me with a big smile, he is only a couple of weeks away from getting a whole new set of teeth. “I wish more people knew what you guys do,” he said, “Whenever one of my friends has a problem, I give them Nicole’s number.”
In another stroke of bad luck, somebody tried to steal Mark’s backpack while he was wearing it, and in the scuffle, his rotator cuff was torn. At the hospital, he was told he would need surgery to treat the injury. With Nicole’s help, though, Mark got the surgery he needed as well as a place to stay during his recovery and beyond. Currently, Mark is working as a street patrolman for businesses and continues to look for more steady employment. He wishes to work as a mechanic, which he did for twenty-five years, but needs to wait another eight to twelve weeks for his shoulder to recover. In the meantime, he takes interest in reading, and particularly enjoys books by Patterson and Grisham.
When I asked Mark what kind of changes he would like to see made in the community, he told me that he wished people were more aware of alcohol abuse issues and that more accessible treatment programs were available. In regards to improving healthcare, he said that he appreciates the one-on-one help he gets from the DWW Companion Care program, that it made accessing healthcare much easier for him, and that he would like to see more clinics implementing similar systems.
When our conversation came to an end, I thanked Mark for sharing his story and wished him the best of luck in reaching his goals. There is always more that can be done to improve the health and hearts of our community, and the first step is to reach out, as Nicole did, to those who might need help.