Staying the Course for Hope and Humanity in Health Care

Health care involves a great deal more than medical care. It involves safe and stable housing, access to healthy and affordable food, and tools and resources to stay connected to other people and a wider community. It involves humanity and hope.
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Alina S. moved from Florida to New York City to get the best medical care for her 16-year-old daughter, Tanya, diagnosed with an aggressive and debilitating form of multiple sclerosis. While Tanya receives excellent medical treatment at a top hospital, the human toll on the family has been steep.

A single mother unable to work because of her daughter's condition, Alina has been staying in a city-run shelter in a Brooklyn Super 8 Motel with Tanya and her 9-year-old brother, who suffers from attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, or ADHD. The shelter has no cooking facilities and limited meal options, food pantries are difficult to get to and even more difficult to stand on line for with two children with health conditions, and ordering food out is expensive. In the middle of March, Alina found herself with $45 in her checking account, the next Social Security Income not due in for two weeks, and a notice from the city that they would soon be moved to another shelter -- although no one could say when or where.

As she packed her family, accompanied her daughter to medical appointments, and cared for her son, Alina didn't know from day to day where they were going to live or, literally, where their next meal was coming from.

Alina's tears of overwhelming anxiety changed to tears of relief when her social worker, Johana Guerra of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY), gave her the first good news she'd had in months: thanks to charitable support, VNSNY would be able to give her an emergency $600 Visa gift card to help her feed her family during this latest upheaval. "This meant the world to her," Johana says. "She cried, she was so relieved -- just to be able to get her children a box of pizza or Subway sandwiches as they go about their day. This will go a long way until they are settled into their next situation."

Health care involves a great deal more than medical care. It involves safe and stable housing, access to healthy and affordable food, and tools and resources to stay connected to other people and a wider community. It involves humanity and hope.

Thanks to generous philanthropy from individual donors -- true community care at its best -- VNSNY is able to provide that humanity and hope along with expert, compassionate clinical care, to help the most vulnerable New Yorkers live better, healthier lives. We help people get necessary medication in the interim if insurance approval is pending and they cannot pay out of pocket. We help seniors in Chinatown, who are becoming increasingly homebound in fifth-floor walk-ups, apply for senior housing in elevator buildings, a lengthy process that requires a lot of paperwork, steadfast follow-up and, often, language translation. We help young families just starting out, by providing diapers, strollers, clothing and other essentials that they otherwise could not afford. And, as with Alina, we step in and provide charitable funds for individuals and families in need, to cover food, utility bills or rental arrears.

"People cannot focus on their health when they have social crises," says Johana, who currently specializes in pediatric palliative care for the medically fragile. "Their mind is very stressed, and they can't sleep. They wonder, How can I pay my light bill and pay for my medications? How am I going to get my child diapers and milk, and still get to the doctor tomorrow? Alina left everything behind in Florida to give her daughter a fighting chance, but she's under so much stress. This gift card is that extra peace of mind that allows her to have hope."

For Ramon G., that hope came in the form of a battery. Primarily wheelchair-bound with complications from diabetes, Ramon loved to sit outside his Bronx apartment building, holding court with his neighbors and enjoying the fresh air. That came to an abrupt halt a month ago, when his wheelchair battery died. The chair was out of warranty and would not be covered by a Medicaid upgrade for another year, and he could not afford a new battery. So Ramon, who lives alone, became homebound, growing increasingly depressed and gaining weight.

Johana knew just where to turn, getting him a new battery with charitable funds. "That was a quick, easy fix to get him mobile again," she notes. So, as spring comes to the Bronx, Ramon is back outside socializing.

Kristina T., a single mother of five, found that hope in a MetroCard -- a lifeline when two of her young children wound up in different Intensive Care Units. A personal aide, Kristina had been unable to work for several weeks while her 9-year-old daughter, suffering from a chronic gastrointestinal condition, recovered from surgery. Then her youngest son's asthma spiraled out of control, and he wound up in the emergency room of another hospital. Thanks to charitable funds, we were able to help Kristina buy a MetroCard so she could be at the bedside of both children; we also provided some financial assistance to help her pay mounting utility bills.

And for Ronnell A., that hope now lives within him, thanks to the skills he developed in VNSNY's Bronx Fatherhood Program. The program, funded in part by individual donations, aims to break the cycle of absentee fatherhood by providing support, resources and expertise to help young men understand their vital role in a family and to thrive as fathers. The young men, who have or are expecting children but may have grown up without a father themselves, attend regular support groups, receive instruction in basic parenting skills, and are connected to community resources and agencies to help them continue their educations, find employment, and contribute financially to their children's lives.

Ronnell, 26, has a little girl -- "almost five going on sixteen" -- who is the light of his life. "She's so smart, she can tell me how to get home from the train station -- go this way, no, go that way," he says, with pride. Through the Fatherhood program, he has learned patience and the importance of listening and of compromise in any relationship. He now gives back to the community, working with men and women with autism, and volunteering as a mentor himself with the Fatherhood program, helping others in the Bronx.

"I was really lost when I came into the program, really on the wrong side of the tracks," he says. "I didn't know what I could bring to the table for my child. The program gave me the knowledge and confidence to do better. I learned that having a child can be a motivation to do better with your life, and I try to pass that along to people I work with." Hope, it turns out, is a renewable resource.

The stories of Ronnell, Kristina, Ramon, and Alina underscore how, more than 120 years after VNSNY's founder Lilian Wald first offered care to impoverished immigrants on Manhattan's Lower East Side, our organization remains deeply committed to addressing the needs of the New York City area's underserved and vulnerable populations. Last year, more than $18.9 million in charitable care and community benefit funding, including $9.1 million to provide direct home care services to more than 6,700 under- and uninsured New Yorkers, helped make the power of humanity possible in a powerful and breathtakingly hopeful way.