Richard* was my first client. As I prepared to enter his hospital room, I felt a mix of nervousness and excitement. Finally, after a month of training, I was going to see a client on my own and start building a caseload. Now my service term was really beginning! At the same time, I felt a creeping doubt that I would not say the right thing. What if I didn’t ask good questions? What if he got upset with me? I knew that if this client refused my help, it would not be my fault. However, my self-assurance did not keep me from wishing deep down that I would be able to make a difference in his life.
That was why I joined AmeriCorps in the first place: I wanted to make a difference. I have always considered myself to be self-motivated and ambitious, and at the beginning of my service term, I felt that these were the most important traits for an AmeriCorps member to possess. I chose to serve in the National Health Corps because I wanted to contribute to the herculean effort of breaking down the barriers to healthcare in America.
As a care coordinator at my host site, Starting Point Behavioral Health, I screen potential clients in the emergency department (ED) for mental health and substance use. The goal of the program is to prevent clients from relying on the ED for healthcare by connecting them with outpatient mental health and primary care. This helps ensure that clients will receive continuous, reliable, and specialized mental health care, while freeing up space and resources in the hospital.
Richard was a great candidate for the care coordination program. He had visited the ED five times in the past month for chronic pain, and he had a history of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I walked tentatively into his room. A nurse in training was removing ECG cables from his chest. “Hi Richard, my name is Danielle and I’m a National Health Corps Florida AmeriCorps member serving as a care coordinator at Starting Point Behavioral Health. How are you doing?”
From there, I no longer had to worry about finding the right words to say, because in the next hour I would hardly be able to get a word in. Richard spoke continually, almost without breathing, about a recent car accident which had caused his pain, then about the local history, then about the book that he was writing, then about his grandson who had lived with him for ten years. He slipped without pause from one subject to the next, even if the subjects had nothing to do with each other. After twenty minutes I felt disoriented by the precipitous changes in topic and the irrelevance of our conversation to Richard’s healthcare. I tried to ask questions to get a better idea of how I could help him, but his answers were simply segueing into the next irrelevant topic.
At one point during that first hour together, he paused and said to me, “You know, you’re a good listener.” Richard’s comment surprised me. He was not being sarcastic, even though I thought that I had done a terrible job of listening. I had difficulty following the thread of his monologues, and much of what he said was esoteric. When I asked questions to clarify his meaning, I was still left scratching my head. Although I did not always understand him, Richard was grateful that I was taking the time to try.
That first meeting happened two months ago. Since then, I have been calling Richard and visiting him at his house several times a week. I was able to reduce his visits to the ED by encouraging him to visit his primary care physician, who gave him a referral for a home health aide and a supply of non-addictive pain medication. I have spent many more hours with Richard than necessary to serve his pain management and mental health needs, but all of the supposedly irrelevant conversations that we have had about the local history and his family life have been part of the care coordination process. Richard is in his seventies and living alone. His family is in another state. It made him feel good when I listened to him, and over time he became more trusting of me because I was so open to hearing what he had to say.
As AmeriCorps members, we take the pledge to “get things done.” “Getting things done” is the AmeriCorps slogan; it is printed on our lanyards, and it is the hashtag on the AmeriCorps social media posts. My experience with Richard has taught me that “getting things done” is not just about approaching your service with energy and ambition. It is not just about being self-motivated and eager to make a difference. “Getting things done” also requires patience. Sometimes I spend an hour conversing with Richard, and I can only squeeze in five minutes to talk about his health. However, my client’s trust is more than worth that supposedly wasted time. As an aspiring medical doctor, I realize that in my future career I will not have the liberty of spending hours on a single client. In AmeriCorps, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to get to know my clients, while developing listening skills that will be essential for building trusting, meaningful relationships with patients in my future career.
*Name changed to protect client’s privacy.
This blog was written by NHC FL Member Danielle Levinson.
Danielle serves at Starting Point Behavioral Healthcare as a Care Coordinator.