Patty Wudell is the Executive Director of Joseph’s House. in Washington, DC. Here, people who are formerly homeless and dying of HIV/AIDS can come to live and receive compassionate care. Patty spoke with HRC writer Wendy Grace Evans to share reflections on her work at Joseph’s House.
Here at Joseph’s House we have had a heartbreaking—more than heartbreaking, a life changing—experience. About a year ago, a 21 year old woman came to us for respite care. We welcomed her. Her name is Melissa (not her real name). She had advanced AIDS, and was expected to die. She had a three year old and a two year old. She was so very sick and so deeply and profoundly full of anguish and depression, and then she became well. She was here at Joseph’s House for five months. Little by little she started to eat and put on weight. Once she started feeling better, she was willing to take HIV/AIDS medications. She got even stronger. Her children came to stay with her, even overnight. She never thrived, but she got well enough to go home.
For her, home was not a homeless shelter. It could have been; there were so many people living in her mother’s apartment. She and her children had a mattress on the living room floor. There were so many people living there with incredible needs, so much anguish. Her brother and sister had been convicted of killing another sister’s boyfriend and were also living there. The young woman stayed in touch with us. We heard she was in the hospital again, but by the time we arrived she had already checked herself out. Then, four weeks ago she was referred to us for hospice care again. So now she is 22 years old and dying.
Last night at our dinner table, we spent time with this courageous young woman, her great grandmother who is 93, her grandmother, her mother, her children, their father, sisters, cousins, and their babies. Joseph’s House was full of people who really love her and are doing the very best they can. The first time she was with us, we didn’t know her family. Now her family has been here sleeping overnight, in her room, and on couches in the living room. We feed everyone all the time. What I find so moving is that when she first came back to us, I just felt rage—rage at AIDS and poverty, rage at these social issues. But I found that my rage just didn’t feel quite right. It distanced me from Melissa.
I didn’t want that, so I found myself sitting with this little girl and holding her kids on my lap and talking to generations of women who have never had any material security, and yet, they have each other. They have resilience, and they do more than the best they can. They really say yes to each other. I don’t have rage anymore; I have love. I have admiration, sadness, humility, and gratitude to have the chance to have some actual time with these women, time at the table. My first impression of Melissa was that she was isolated and she was. But my initial impression that she wasn’t loved was misinformed. Now, it’s both much sadder and much better to know about the love in her family that has been here since she contracted AIDS as a child. There is more love than anything else. We are part of that love, too. It is moving to be a part of the support for our young volunteers who are Melissa’s age. How do you support them? Well…we do.
This past weekend we anticipated that she might die. I was on call. Our nurse practitioner, Priscilla had a wedding across the country and she called to talk to Melissa’s mother and grandmother. What really moved me is that she happened to call at mealtime. Melissa’s mother said to us, “I cannot believe the love that is here. It doesn’t matter what shift or who is working, there is always love here.”
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