“Breaks your heart,” said one, “but so glad we did this.”

By Michael Vitez

The nurses at Temple University Hospital are encouraged to do outreach projects, and Maureen O’Brien, a nurse on 3 East, wanted to collect clothing and supplies and deliver them to the homeless and drug-addicted who lived in Kensington under the Emerald Street bridge.

O’Brien’s dear friend and supervisor, Carrie Murawski, sent word to all the nurses on 3 and 4 East, who donated coats, gloves, hats, socks and so much more, enough for 86-zip-loc bags, and a several larger shopping bags.

Delivery was 7 a.m., Jan. 31, the coldest day in a year, 5 degrees.

Thirteen nurses — many coming off the night shift, others coming in on their day off — loaded the boxes into the back of O’Brien’s pickup.

Working in the poorest part of Philadelphia, Temple nurses see up close the maladies of life, patients suffering from gun violence or substance use disorder, all the crushing consequences of poverty on one’s health. But O’Brien is a suburban woman and admitted she had no idea what to expect as the four carloads of nurses caravanned the 1.5 miles over to Kensington.

“Let’s go, family,” said O’Brien as they got underway.

Temple nurses Carrie Murawski and Maureen O’Brien heading to the tent city with their clothing to give away.

In a sense, they are a family, working so closely, each with his or her own reason for becoming a nurse, and for working at Temple. In the back seat of O’Brien’s truck, for instance, was Steffy Mathew, whose father went into organ failure six years ago, one week after the family arrived from India. The ambulance took him to Temple, which saved his life. So Temple is where she works.

O’Brien was nervous and excited as she drove over. “I only know the addict that’s in the bed,” she said. “So this will complete the picture. Make me more empathetic.”

Kensington is the center of Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic, and last fall the mayor declared the neighborhood a disaster. Since then, city officials have been closing down the four tent cities located under different railroad bridges. Later that morning, Emerald Street, known by its occupants as The Emerald City, would be the last.

Police cars blocked off the street as the Temple nurses arrived, but officers waved them through. They unloaded and began distributing.

O’Brien was frozen, not so much by the arctic chill as by what she saw — a sea of tents, of people, of despair.

Jen Frasca, a nurse, had tears streaming down her cheeks. “I’m just overwhelmed,” she said. “It’s so sad to see people live this way.”

Murawski, the nurse manger, was as at home in this setting as on her floors. She began approaching every tent, handing out the bags, listening to their stories.

“We’re Temple nurses,” she said repeatedly. “We’ve got warm clothes, hand warmers. Do you have a place to go? We can help.”

The other nurses followed her lead. The bags included information on treatment options.

“How long you been out here?” Murawski asked one homeless woman, Danielle.

“Too long,” Danielle replied.

“How long you been using?” Murawski asked.

“Forever,” said the woman.

Murawski hugged her underneath the Emerald Street Bridge. “There’s always hope,” she said.

O’Brien just took it all in.

“I’m watching and learning,” she said.

After about 20 minutes, mission accomplished. The nurses gave all remaining bags to outreach workers from Project Home. The caravan headed back to Temple.

“Breaks your heart,” said O’Brien, “but so glad we did this.”

Pulling up in the circle outside the hospital, she let out the three other nurses in her truck, hugging each one.

“Love you all,” she said. “Really. Love you.”


Michael Vitez is the director of narrative medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. michael.vitez@temple.edu. Read more stories at https://medium.com/temples-narrative-medicine-program

Stories from Temple’s Narrative Medicine Program

Led by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Vitez, Temple’s Narrative Medicine Program focuses on the human side of medicine through a celebration of and emphasis on stories and storytelling.

Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University

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Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. Exceptional students, clinicians and researchers with zeal for education, research and patient care.

Stories from Temple’s Narrative Medicine Program

Led by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Vitez, Temple’s Narrative Medicine Program focuses on the human side of medicine through a celebration of and emphasis on stories and storytelling.

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