Submitted by: PeaceHealth

“That your lost lonesome heart

might learn to cry out

for the true intimacy of love

that waits to take you home

to where you are known and seen

and where your life is treasured

beyond every frontier

of despair you have crossed.”

~ From “For the Addict” by John O’Donohue

A feeling of belonging

Max” (not his real name) was chronically homeless. He spent his time at many sites throughout Whatcom County. But the place where he felt most at home was the PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center emergency room (ER).

“I think he just felt that people really cared about him here,” speculated Grace Thoerner, LISCW, MHP, hospital community connecter from Unity Care NW, who interacted with Max frequently in the emergency room. “He was comfortable here. He felt safe and knew that this was a place where people would be kind to him.”

Max’s longstanding history with the emergency room included regular visits that spanned nearly two decades.

Unreached potential

Max’s life outside of the emergency room was difficult and complex. It was a tangled web of challenges: a seizure disorder, mental illness, substance abuse, strained relationships, infections, an arson conviction that prevented him from achieving permanent housing and mistreatment in moments of vulnerability.

But there was a softer side to Max as well. He talked of his creative energy and a desire to make a difference. He even mentioned a dream of performing on stage. Behind his hardened exterior, he wanted to contribute to society in some meaningful way.

“It was hard to watch because I always felt the potential for what could’ve been was lost. His addiction relentlessly eroded his creative potential; it held him captive until he no longer wanted to escape,” Grace shared.

Saying good-bye

Then, one day in mid-August, the ER team learned that Max had passed away. He was in his mid-forties. The news was upsetting. It was unsettling. It lacked closure. Max had become like a family member to ER caregivers, and Grace knew that they must do something to honor him.

Grace worked in collaboration with chaplain Andrea Zikakis to plan a breakfast wake. Caregivers from the PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center ER, laboratory and security departments, as well paramedics from the Bellingham Fire Department, gathered to reflect about Max as a person and share stories of his life.

They were honest; they were real. Like all people, Max had both strengths and flaws. His narrative weaved together sadness and brokenness and hopelessness with acceptance and appreciation and creativity. They talked about how Max had softened over the years, and they detailed the many characteristics that made him so unique and memorable. Their words painted a picture of Max.

One theme was clear: All those in attendance were glad to have been there for Max when he needed them.

Carrying it forward

The service was cathartic and comforting in many ways.

“It was a way to really rehumanize him. We were able to take a step back and see all his many layers,” Grace reflected. “Our collective remembrance helped us understand him as an individual. Each patient has a life story. We know this on a practical level, but it’s good to be reminded of it.”

Max’s influence can still be felt in his unconventional ‘home.’ In both his life and death, Max reminded his caregivers to recognize the many intricate dimensions and facets of each person.

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