About five years ago, my kids and I went to Philadelphia PA for a work function of mine. Coincidentally we also learned a lesson about discrimination, compassion, and bullying right outside the front steps of City Hall. The evening before heading back home, my two kids, and I toured the downtown area of Philly. While we were debating where we should go for lunch we were walking by the City Hall building and saw a homeless man sleeping on the steps. My kids were not used to seeing this aspect of city life, so they asked a lot of questions as to how someone becomes homeless. During our conversation we settled on eating lunch at McDonalds because it was close and we decided together that we would buy an extra meal and offer it to the homeless man. Right as we were walking up the steps to the man, a police car pulled up and two police men got out with their billy clubs in hand. They hurriedly walked past us and started talking to the homeless man telling him he couldn’t sleep there. All the while, one of their hands was holding the billy club and the other hand was resting on their belted guns. We picked up our pace and asked the officers if we could offer our meal to the man. The officers granted us permission and after we extended the meal to the homeless man, he accepted it, with a smile on his face. Then the officers handcuffed and escorted the homeless man to the back of their police car and then, they were gone. We were slightly in disbelief and the kids were upset at what we had just witnessed.
Growing up in the inner city of Minneapolis, a scene similar to this one wasn’t uncommon for me to see. I took the opportunity to teach my kids of the discrimination that is prevalent not just in the bigger cities like Philadelphia and Minneapolis but even in smaller communities where we live. For instance, when they see a man walking around our city wearing the same clothes day after day, asking if we can spare a buck or two this is homelessness. He may have a place to sleep at night, but he spends his days wandering around the city without a home to go to. I reminded my kids that just because we are more financially sound than the homeless man, doesn’t mean our family isn’t without struggles. At any moment, any of us could lose all that we have and become homeless too, and that we should not look down on this man because he is homeless.
During the whole situation, I had an inner urge to help the homeless man. I was able to think quickly of something we could do, to help him, by offering him a meal. The small gesture warmed my heart, because I wasn’t sure if this man had ever been given a gift. Then again maybe he had been given plenty of gifts and mine was not so special after all. Either way, that didn’t seem to matter as much as showing compassion and putting myself in his shoes. My spiritual belief to - do unto others, as you would have done unto you - came to mind and if I were in the same situation, I would appreciate help and empathy. I could not help but think about where this man lived or if he just slept on the streets? Did he have any family? Did he have anyone who thought of him as special, if so, where were they? What was most upsetting to me was the way the officers treated the man with such harshness and brawn. Instead of treating him like a human, I felt they were pushing their weight around because they had power over him.
In our nursing class, we have been learning about bullying in the workplace but the definition is universal. Bullying is “real or perceived power differential between the instigator and recipient”. When the police officers had their hands on their Billy clubs and guns they were showing their real and perceived power differential over the homeless man. There was a power differential between the police officers and our family, and the public walking by witnessing the incident. This situation is common among many cultural and diverse populations.
Homelessness and financial burdens are seen in the hospital setting, and we as nurses, are called to a higher standard of care. We have to give unbiased and equal care to all of our patients, no matter where they are from or why they are in our care. Being a nurse doesn’t allow us the freedom to bully our patients, instead we strive to advocate and teach wellness, as evidenced by our code of ethics. As a reminder of Provision One of our nursing code of ethics, the nurse, in all professional relationships, practices with compassion and respect for the inherent dignity, worth, and uniqueness of every individual, unrestricted by considerations of social or economic status, personal attributes, or the nature of health problems.
In my future nursing role, I am encouraged to bring kindness and compassion to one another just out of the simple principal of being humane. What I witnessed in Philly, is significant to me, because I am reminded every one of us has a story, a background, and our own timeline of events that have led us to where we are now. We should be throwing away our judgmental attitudes towards others who are different. We need to educate ourselves about other people’s differences and make a movement forward of being more accepting of others. In turn, like the popular expression of paying it forward, other people can be encouraged by our behavior, to bestow helpful behavior unto others.