October 25, 2021

Saving Mr. Jordan

David W. Hunter, MD, FACR

Three days a week, I deliver frozen meals to seniors through Meals on Wheels America. My wife manages the route on her phone, calls ahead and straightens up problems.

I always address our clients with respect by their last name. One of our clients, whom I call Mr. Jordan had a stroke (name changed to protect anonymity). He lives alone in a small apartment. His friends in the building helped the supervisor decide it might be better for him to move from the third to the first floor. The pieces of his life that were moved with him are still stacked in corners and randomly scattered in the three small rooms.

Mr. Jordan’s face is distorted by the sagging and motionless right side. His words are slurred and hard to understand. His teeth are stained and many are missing. He moves slowly. His right and dominant hand has a firm handshake, but he cannot write. He is only 55.

A former heavyweight bodybuilder, Mr. Jordan was struck down by the lightning flash of undiagnosed diabetes and hypertension. Now, he is slimmed down and remarkably muscular given his weakness. The building in which he lives has no external call buttons and no way for him to let me in to deliver his meals.

Trash lines the street and around the building, including hundreds of cigarette butts, bags, bottles, broken glass, discarded food and odd pieces of torn clothing. The smell in the hallways of the old building is a mix of disrepair, worn carpets and unwashed surfaces.

My wife calls when we are one minute or less away. Mr. Jordan answers, saying he’ll be right down to the front door — an amount of time that varies widely. Sometimes other tenants let me in, and I go to his door and knock. Sometimes I wait outside until he comes slowly down the few steps, leading with his left leg. As he takes the bag, he always says a quick “thank you” in his gentle, sad, gravelly voice. I always try to say something pleasant, often banal, but hopefully worth a smile.

Last October, when I mentioned the election, he quietly replied that he wished he could vote. I asked if he had a driver’s license and voter registration card. He had both. I printed an application for a mail-in ballot. At the next visit, we sat together with our masks on at a small table in the hall and filled it out, me writing, him dictating and finally signing slowly and shakily.

Two weeks later, he proudly announced that his ballot had arrived. We sat together to write, discuss his choices and have him sign again. I suddenly realized through my blind, smug arrogance that he knew exactly why and for whom he wanted to vote. We sealed the envelopes, and he smiled his lovely, lopsided smile.

I drove the ballot to a local voting station, turned it in and returned with his “I Voted” sticker, which is still on his door. Since then, we have longer discussions at his door. We have planned clean-up days for the property. I have pumped up the tires on his old fixed-gear bicycle and searched for a safer tricycle instead.

We also have plans to hang his mirrors and 15 or so framed pictures on the wall in his new apartment. He showed me the pictures. I paused to take a second look at one photo of him, younger and whole, holding and kissing a pretty woman. It is his life, and I will wait for him give me details of that moment of happiness and beauty — if and when he wishes to.

Although Mr. Jordan sees a physician for his medical problems, the rest of his world, rehabilitation, hopes and dreams are limited by facts that should not matter … that he is black, poor and disabled. After four years since his stroke, he still is not receiving disability payments, gets no dental, physical or speech therapy, and has no in-home assistance to help with even basic cleaning. What an unfair and unbalanced world we have created in our country!

I, my physician colleagues, and my friends who are technologists, nurses, and assistants have always given our best efforts to anyone who trusted us with their care. However, the system that has become the business of medicine does not. Mr. Jordan survives on the fringes of that system, his care fragmented and incomplete. I help cautiously, trying not to overstep the boundary of his autonomy.

Some nights I lie awake and think about the uncertain, frightening and delicate balance beam on which his life sways, poised to fall. I have always felt that I gave to my patients all of the energy and talent I had, but I now see that I stood behind the door through which only the favored few could easily pass. I never took the time or made the effort to reach through the door and drag in the helpless people lying outside and waiting their turn, which might never come. At least now, in my retirement, I can help save Mr. Jordan — who represents the face of many.