Friday, March 29, 2019

My Red Cross Story: Heaven Receives Another Angel

There are so many stories shared by Red Cross staff and volunteers.  From my nine years in this organization, I've not had a story to tell as sad as this one.  Two evenings ago, I received a phone call from a friend who also volunteers with the American Red Cross (ARC).  It's not the kind of call I was expecting.  I thought Cheri was calling to confirm our meet-up at headquarters next Tuesday.  Instead, she gave me the horrible news that the last client to leave the Otay Recreation Center shelter in Chula Vista two weeks ago had passed.

On the morning of March 18, I was called by the ARC to head down to the rec center to do a walk-through inspection of the facility and to set up a shelter for people displaced from two separate fires, unbelievably occurring at the same time, a block away from each other.  I saw the trailer park fire on the news as I dressed for the day.  That was the fire I believed I was responding to.  When I got to the shelter was when I learned of the other fire.  Most of the clients - we at the ARC do not refer to the displaced residents as "victims" - were able to find places to stay instead of coming to the shelter.  Those who couldn't find a place arrived at the shelter sleepy and bewildered.  The fires occurred very early in the morning.  

It was relayed to me, as the shelter was being readied, that the Fire Department took one client to the emergency room for smoke inhalation and that she could be released from the hospital early evening.  The client's name is Sherry.  She was found on the floor of her smoke-filled apartment, where the fire evidently started in her bedroom and had to be pulled out.

Sherry told me that the day before the fire, she was packing her belongings for a move out of her apartment to another place.  It was a marathon packing session.  In the super-early morning hours the day of the fire, she put her tea kettle on the stove fire and returned to her bedroom to continue packing but fell asleep instead.  It was the whistle of the tea kettle that woke her up, and not wanting the loud noise to wake up her neighbors, she hastily rose from the bed, knocking over her table lamp which also took a lit candle with it.  What you need to know is that Sherry suffered from multiple ailments before the fire and uses a walker to get around.  She was also still grieving the loss of her adult son and loved to share that she was proud of his military service in Afghanistan.  She also was grieving the loss of her granddaughter, circumstances unknown to us.

My shift ended at 7pm on the opening day of the shelter. I returned the next day at 6:45am.  The first time I met Sherry, she was wearing a hospital gown over the clothes she'd been wearing since the day before.  The hospital staff turned the hospital gown around so that the opening was now in the front to make it look like a jacket.  She also had hospital socks on her feet, no shoes.  She was asleep in the dormitory when I arrived.  Sherry would wake up a couple of hours later when she asked me to show her the restroom.  She sauntered from the back of the gym to the front, and into the next section of the building where the toilets were.  During that slow walk, Sherry told me that the hospital staff put her in a taxi upon her release from the hospital after it was apparent her daughter-in-law was not going to pick her up and take her home with her after many attempts to reach her by phone.  

I noticed when checking out the dorm area that Sherry had only 3 tote bags to her name plus the clothes on her back.  These were the items she had placed at the door of her apartment before the fire.  It came to mind that she was going to need clothing and shoes.  When John (ARC Spiritual Care Associate) and I talked about it, he said he'd do the shopping, that is until I said he'd have to buy undergarments, too.  So I wrote down a complete list of what she'd need, and it was passed to a team of two ARC Feeding associates who went shopping.  One of them was Lisa, so there was no hesitation in the buying panties and bra.  Sherry looked so happy and refreshed in her new garments.  She beamed like a ray of sunshine!  I couldn't let this moment go by without a picture to celebrate it.

By noon, Sherry said she called her daughter-in-law again to pick her up from the shelter.  This lady told Sherry that she was working a 10-hour shift and didn't feel she could manage to come and get her after work.  It saddened me that this family member obviously didn't care for Sherry's well-being.  Through all that Sherry had been through, she still smiled mixed with bouts of crying.  This lonely woman carried so much physical pain, a heavy heart for the loss of her beloved son and granddaughter, and no place to call home.

My very last memory of Sherry is bringing her a plate of a big slice of pepperoni pizza, a bowl of garden salad, her favorite cookie, a bag of chips and bottled water.  She was so hungry.  It's what she wanted to eat for dinner.  Before I left, I put my hands on her shoulders, looked into her eyes and told her that everything will turn out well and that I wished all good things for her.  The Red Cross is going to take very good care you, I told her.  I was experiencing pain in my lower back since Monday morning and knew if I didn't start self-care, I was going to be in big trouble.  The cause for pain was wrestling with metal chairs that wouldn't come off the carts as they should, carrying them from the classroom to the gym, then sitting in them.  They were the worst chairs ever to sit in.  Before I left for home, I took a photo of Sherry's shelter registration form which had her cell phone number.  I planned to phone her, and maybe even take lunch and sit with her for an hour or so.  However, when I woke up Wednesday morning, I could barely sit, stand or anything else without pain.  That's fine, I thought, I'll contact Sherry the following week.

The ARC caseworkers worked hard to find Sherry a new home.  With no identification card (because it was burnt in the fire), no apartment management would accept her.  It took eight calls before the caseworkers found the Rambler Motel.  It sounds frightful but it's rated high in Tripadvisor, believe it or not.  Caseworkers drove Sherry to her new home last Wednesday evening, and every single day, the ARC would phone her to see how she's doing, if she needs anything, and so on.  Caseworkers said Sherry would express endless gratitude and that she was so happy. Calls to her this past Monday and Tuesday went unanswered, however, and so when my friend Mary, a caseworker, phoned her on Wednesday and got no answer, she asked the motel management to do a wellness check on her.  Mary would then receive a call from the motel saying they had to call the Chula Vista Police Department because when they entered Sherry's room, they found her deceased.  I was informed of her death shortly thereafter.  I was stunned, heartbroken, unbelieving.    How can this be?

The ARC Mental Health Department did a kind thing for those of us who had the pleasure of spending time caring for Sherry on site and behind the scenes.  Last night, they invited us to come into headquarters for a coffee chat.  Stories about Sherry were shared, tears were shed and now we're trying to fill in the missing pieces of her death.  Why did she die?  Where was her body taken to?  Where will she be buried?  It's sad Sherry didn't have loved ones to keep an eye on her.  It's sad that she died alone.  How does anyone end up alone?  I don't know these kinds of things because I'm surrounded by an extremely huge family unit.  A mental health specialist asked each of us how we intend to deal with our grief.  The answers were so varied.  A nurse said that she will go see the super blooms, another staffer said he was going to get in his truck and drive, and another said she was going to spend a day this weekend walking in the park.  I shared that I began my grieving process by starting this blog post as soon as I learned of Sherry's death.

This story is not over.  We want to give our sweet Sherry a proper memorial service when our questions have been answered.  I grieve at Sherry's passing, but I am so thankful that she received the love and compassion while she was in our care.