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I loathe National Football League marquee quarterback, Eli Manning. This being said, I do not dislike the two-time Superbowl victor because of any major character flaws, negative conduct in the public sphere, nor even his juvenile “bowl” haircut. Actually, my only qualm with the man is that he has led the New York Giants to two momentous playoff victories in the last five years against my beloved Green Bay Packers. Despite my esteemed Packers steamrolling the Giants during the regular seasons of 2007 and 2011, Mr. Manning has proved to be quite resilient against the Pack in the playoffs and has stymied two promising Green Bay Superbowl runs.
It is for this reason I am peeved to be told that I resemble Eli Manning. While volunteering as Medical Assistant and HIV Testing Co-ordinator at LifeLong Medical Care in downtown Oakland, CA for the last six months, dozens (not a hyperbolic statement) of patients have told me I “look just like” Eli Manning. I am constantly berated with my patients’ realizations of my resemblance; “Yo Eli!,” “Lemme see your Superbowl ring!,” and the more temporally relevant, “Are you worried about your brother’s neck?” After about a month of being called “Eli,” I asked one of my patients why he thought I looked so much like the Giants quarterback. He quipped, “You’re white, you’re athletic, and you keep yourself clean.”
For the rest of the day I mulled over the three adjectives my patient employed to describe me: “white,” “athletic,” and “clean.” I wondered if all of the patients that visited our primary care clinic for the homeless and disadvantaged (more than 70% of our patients are below the Federal Poverty Line) thought of me as simply a pale, clean-shaven, tall male. In my opinion, “David Painton Bray” was so much more than my superficial appearance.
It was while feeling the sting of a stereotype that I realized the dehumanizing power of the adjectives we utilize to describe the people we encounter. When my friends and family asked what the patients I worked with were like, I usually described them as “homeless,” or “impoverished.” However, after working with my patients for the last six months, I have realized that they are diverse individuals, each with his or her own story and consciousness. It took being slapped with my own stereotype for me to understand the fallacy of synecdoche; the parts or appearance of a person do not completely define the individual. Discovering this truth was the most valuable aspect of my volunteering as a Missionary of the Precious Blood.
A few months ago, a patient I will call “Mark” came to the clinic for a physical. As I perused Mark’s medical chart before meeting him to conduct his initial history, I noticed the numerous anti-depressants prescribed to him and his lack of medical insurance. After reading the information in his chart, I surmised that Mark was just like the majority of the patients that visited our clinic: “homeless.”
As I admitted Mark to the vitalization section of our clinic, I noticed that his outward appearance fit my expectation of a homeless, middle-aged man. His hair was disheveled, his sweatpants featured multiple stains, and his dated sneakers emitted an odorous stench. I greeted him and asked him to take off his jacket so I could record his blood pressure. Under his soiled jacket he wore a tattered Boston College t-shirt.
I pointed to his shirt with my pen, “Are you a BC fan?”
He answered, “Yeah, I went there.”
My jaw must have hit the floor. I stammered out something about how we were practically birds-of-a-feather; I just graduated from the University of Notre Dame last May.
His eyes lit up. “Tough season you guys are having…what did you study?”
I responded that I studied pre-medicine and that I planned on attending medical school in the fall.
“No way, that’s what I studied.”
I almost blurted out, “What happened?” But as I studied the wrinkles on his face and his forlorn countenance, I knew it did not matter what happened, but just that it had happened and Mark was at rock bottom. Five minutes of idle conversation took place and I checked Mark into his room.
Interacting with patients such as Mark informed me of the fragility of the human condition. Even a promising youth, fresh out of a prestigious Catholic university, could encounter a life-changing event and end up on the streets. After encountering multiple patients like Mark, the “homeless” did not seem so different from me. Many of the people I met had promising beginnings to their lives, yet some string of events led them into depression and poverty. This made me wonder about my own vulnerabilities and whether something like this could ever happen to me.
While I dislike Eli Manning, I love bacon and eggs. Actually, I love frying bacon on a pan above a constant blast of ignited propane and making it extraordinarily crispy. I then use the rendered bacon fat to cook my eggs. I enjoy the bacon and eggs with coffee before I go to work every morning. It is during this time and at dinner when I spend the most time with other members of the Precious Blood community at Soninno House in Berkeley, CA. I encounter extremely depressing cases while at work everyday, so I rely upon my time with community to lighten my mood and lift my spirit. My community members, work colleagues, friends, and family, ask me about my work and inspire me to return to the clinic with their words and action of support. While I deal with saddening circumstances everyday, the infinite support of the Precious Blood community allows me to continue volunteering.
Volunteering in a medical clinic for the impoverished in Oakland, CA has been one of the most important experiences in my life, not because of the skills it taught me as I continue a career in medicine, but because it taught me to respect the diversity of human life. After encountering many patients who fell into poverty, all for different reasons, I have come to appreciate the infinite assortment of experiences that create “homelessness.” This is not to say that some of my pre-conceived notions and stereotypes of the poor have been completely altered in a short six months; to the contrary, some of my original conceptions of homelessness still exist, just as surely as my patients will swear that I resemble Eli Manning. However, after this experience, I am cognizant of my own understanding of the impoverished, and treat every one of them with the utmost respect and dignity that they deserve.
David Bray graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 2011. He was a 2011 Precious Blood Volunteer, living in community in Berkeley, CA and working in Oakland, CA. He currently attends medical school.