Written by Richard Yusim
As soon as this pandemic began, I became a news junky. I’m sure I’m not the only one. It’s important to recognize if I’m watching too much news but I couldn’t stop. I find live T.V. to be especially compelling and there was plenty of it every day in 2020. I was already watching news every weekday morning and I soon developed the habit of watching a news hour daily. Being unemployed and alone, I quickly began to feel helpless and depressed watching the terrible events unfold.
One morning, I saw a news story that enraged me. Dr. Henderson was loading up his van with supplies for the homeless community in Miami one morning in April 2020. Dr. Henderson is a young black man. Dr. Henderson was stopped by a police officer, questioned and then handcuffed in front of his own apartment! He was let go after his wife brought his ID for the officer. WTF! I was so mad and I could not just sit in my place alone and let this story fester in my mind.
I wanted to think of something I could do locally in that moment to help others. I knew the best way to counteract the feelings I was experiencing was to be proactive. What could I do though? What resources did I have? I went out to the garage and looked around. Ah ha! Camping supplies! I used to enjoy camping with my wife but she was gone now. The chances of me camping on my own are slim to none. I packed up anything I could find that a homeless person could use. I had a tent, two foldable chairs, sleeping bag for two people, some sneakers and a big bag of winter clothes that were being stored. I loaded up my car and I knew where I had seen homeless folks before. It felt great to drive up and surprise this small group of homeless people near the 101Frwy here in my hometown of Ventura, CA. Without really realizing it, I was beginning to change my emotional life in a very important way.
So I’m at home a few weeks later and I see a story on the news hour that also inspired me to action. This time, it was a story about a different doctor. This doctor was describing to Judy Woodruff what it was like to treat COVID patients. The doctor went on listing all the PPE she wears when she’s on the floor visiting patients. The mask the doctor wears fits her face in such a way that if she was to smile at her patients, even though they could not see her smiling, the mask’s effectiveness is compromised. The fact that this doctor could not smile at her patients is the thing that troubled her the most. I realized what that doctor was talking about in that moment was a daily struggle at her job that could easily lead to burnout. She needed to smile more for herself while she hoped that her patients would recognize her smiling eyes. I got really sad after seeing this story. I sobbed after this story because I’ve worked with dedicated nurses, CNA’s, and doctors in a skilled nursing facility and already had tremendous respect for them. I was no longer working in that role and was doing essentially nothing to help them. I saw the people coming out to support the healthcare workers in New York. They were banging pots and cheering them on as they geared up for their shift. I thought it was beautiful and it was happening every day. I can do that, I thought to myself. I can be a cheerleader! That’s easy! I grabbed my tambourine and drove to my local medical center. I drove to an entrance which seemed to be the main entrance. I did my best to park where I would not be in the way. I cheered some workers on with my arm out of the window shaking my tambourine. “Thank you!” I yelled, “Have a good shift! It didn’t take long for a security guard to approach me. “Excuse me sir, are you dropping someone off or picking up? I told the officer “No, I’m just greeting the workers”. “Well, you can’t park here because the emergency vehicles won’t be able to get in and out”. I felt a little stupid in that moment but I asked him where would be a good place to situate myself. He showed me a corner where the workers pass by in each direction at shift change. It turned out to be perfect. There was a tree for shade and plenty of workers going to and from work. I went home that day and made a sign that that could be used at morning shift and night shift. I also had a table top easel I could place my sign on. I wore a mask at all times out of respect for the workers and to be cautious. I was so delighted with the smiles I was receiving from the workers. Soon I started to be thanked by some and they would sometimes wave to me from their cars. I would say “have a good shift!” or if they were going home “have a nice day (evening)!” It didn’t take long for me to recognize how beneficial this was for both me and the workers. I was doing something I could not only repeat but continue as long as I wanted to. At first, it was every day but I decreased it to three or four days a week for both morning and evening shift change. They started to ask my name and some wanted to take a picture of me. Some of these workers got rather emotional when they stopped to thank me. I began to learn names too. I kept this up until it got to be too dark at evening shift.
While I cannot say I am never lonely, I knew I would not get depressed if I kept this job up. This was providing me human connection on days that I would see and talk to no one. I let the feeling of helping the workers sink in. I would allow this feeling to help me through the day when I was alone. On other days, I tried to engage in other meaningful activities such as drawing, music, cooking or other household chores. I started this volunteer job on May 5th, 2020 I remember and I didn’t stop until I was working as a therapist which wasn’t until December 2020. I left this volunteer job in December because I finally started seeing my own clients.
They were so inspiring to watch as they walked briskly and cheerfully to their jobs, day after day working 12 hour shifts. I loved getting up early, making coffee, then driving to the hospital listening to music. I began to really appreciate the time to play the tambourine in a mindful manner for an entire hour outdoors too. I delighted in coming up with different march patterns. This was an unexpected development and could be very meditative. One day, a nurse gave me a response that thrilled me. She said “I feel like a soldier marching into battle” I told her that’s exactly how I want her to feel. I told her it’s a love march and she’s a soldier in love’s army. We are all in this together. It is possible find needed support when we support others who need it most.