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Mocha Musings: A close encounter with one not so fortunate as I

I happened to be inside the library on a cold January afternoon when a man wearing a heavy backpack came in asking if we could call an ambulance for someone. A man standing nearby and I both quickly went outside and saw a person hunched over a wheelchair, pleading for help. He was in obvious pain; we called 9-1-1 and stayed by his side, assuring him that medical help was on its way. While waiting, he told me about recent medical operations that hadn’t healed, and that he had been “viciously attacked and stabbed” on the Plaza a few weeks earlier.

It was only when the EMT asked him a question and, with effort, he turned his face upwards, that I saw him clearly. His face was very sunken, his eyes full of pain. He looked much older than the “almost 68” years that he stated. The EMTs were caring and efficient, and when he was placed on the gurney and covered with blankets, he finally began to relax.

“Well,” I said to the man next to me, “I hope they give him some drugs for the pain. At least, he’ll be out of the cold for an evening.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “Just being out of the cold is important.”

As they secured him under the blankets and loaded him into the waiting ambulance, I reflected on being able to get in from the cold on such a freezing winter night. Of having a roof over our heads and warm water coming out of the tap. Lights that go on with the flick of a switch, a fridge stocked with food, a clean towel or a warm, soft bathrobe: the myriad of comforts that most of us can call our own without a second thought.

Our attention turned to his wheelchair, overflowing with plastic bags and miscellaneous items. The EMT asked him what to do with them?

“Oh, just throw ‘em away,” he said. “I don’t care.” Then, reconsidering, he added, “They’re all I have in the world.”

The EMT nodded. “We’ll see if we can bring them with us,” he assured him.

So, the three of us (and a jogger who happened by) donned gloves, bagged up his things, collapsed the wheelchair, and it all went into the ambulance. Very little did he have by way of physical possessions: a cardboard cup of coffee, a bit of food in a take-out box, a pair of sunglasses, and so on. I felt humbled. Most of us have more in our kitchen “junk” drawers.

The ambulance drove off and I went back to my life. Didn’t think about it again until I read a letter to the editor in the Daily Tidings a few days ago about a homeless man who had died. It said that he had been part of the homeless community here for years; that he was good-natured and loved to talk. Was a vet and had a family. And when I read, “In January, Steve collapsed on the Ashland library steps and was rushed to the hospital,” I realized for the first time that the man we helped was Steve Denton. Now he had a name.

I do not profess to know the answer to the issues currently confronting Ashland, but I do not believe that the majority of people living on the streets and shivering in the cold do so by “choice.” I feel that this larger percentage fall outside of a broken, and increasingly unaffordable, health care system. Whether they choose to live rough or are victims of circumstances — and however we view this issue personally — does not negate the fact that they are people with names and personal histories.

Most of us can count our blessings that tonight, and most probably tomorrow night, too, the odds are good that we will be inside somewhere, safe and warm. Even when we feel there is little we can do to help, we can strive to remain compassionate, kind and open-minded. And whenever we see someone shivering in the cold or curled up outside on the hard pavement, we can keep in mind that there, but for the grace of God, go I.

Award-winning author, TV presenter and world traveler Susanne Severeid is an Ashland resident who enjoys making time for the important things in life — including mocha. Read more of her columns at bit.ly/adtssmm. For more, go to www.susannesevereid.com. Email her at susannewebsite@olypen.com.