Thomas lived in a small group home on the south side of town. He had AIDS, renal failure, high blood pressure, and, the night I met him, an overall sick feeling he couldn’t explain. “I’m due for dialysis tomorrow,” he said. “But tonight…I just don’t feel right.” He didn’t look right either. He was only 47 but he looked old and tired as if he’d spent a lifetime on the run, fighting, and struggling just to stay alive.
After performing a quick assessment I checked his blood pressure and hooked up the cardiac monitor for a look at his heart. His vitals were a little off, but overall he checked out fine. I glanced at his face and suddenly got the feeling that this was more than just a sick call. He needed to talk to someone. And I was okay with that. “Tell you what,” I said. “Let’s take a ride.”
He smiled, much obliged, and rose to his feet.
It was a routine transport. I stuck an 18-gauge IV catheter in his arm, took another look at his EKG, and then leaned back and looked at him as we rode down the highway.
“So, Thomas,” I said. “Where are you from?”
“Yeah? Then you remember this place before it became a ghetto.”
“Look,” I said, “forgive me for prying, but, well, I was just wondering…were you ever in a gang?”
A stern expression tightened his face. “Let’s put it this way,” he said. “I learned to shoot a gun when I was five years old. Started taking drugs when I was twelve. I did heroin for more than twenty years on the street and then every day in prison for seven more. It won’t my mother that taught me all that.”
I gazed at him without speaking. I felt he deserved that. He had something important to say. He continued.....“The alcohol and drugs ruined me. My kidneys are shot now. I don’t blame nobody else, though. I made the mistakes, and I’ll live with ‘em. But these gangs you asked about?” He paused and shook his head. “They’re bad, man. These kids today will shoot anybody. They steal and rob for drugs. They kill. And those girls? They only keep ‘em round for one reason—makin’ babies. To the gangs that’s all they’re good for. My daughter’s there now, you know."He glanced at me as if searching for an answer. “She stays coked up and pregnant most the time.”
“Can’t you talk to her?” I asked. “Try to help her?”
“No, you don’t understand. Can’t never talk to her no more. Afraid of her. I know it’s my fault, she’s my child, but she won’t created for no good.”
I felt a strange paradox as I walked away from the ER: pleased to know that Thomas is a Christian today—he gave his life to Christ somewhere along the way—but saddened by what I had just witnessed. Harsh reality. Not just words from some magazine article about gangs and troubled youth, but real flesh and blood, a grown man who had survived the streets only to live and suffer the consequences of his mistakes.
Today Thomas lives in the corner of a dusty room. He has few friends, some serious health issues, and a daughter he can no longer see. So I wonder, does he question his purpose in life? I can’t answer that, but I do know this—Thomas and I encouraged one another last Wednesday night, and that was no mistake. It was God’s handiwork. And in that brief meeting, I find true purpose.
Do you struggle with your purpose in life? If so, consider poor Thomas. And remember, you are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.
Pat Patterson is a novelist, a paramedic, and an instructor of Emergency Medical Science. His stories are true, based on real experiences from the streets of Durham, North Carolina where he has served as a paramedic since 1992.