Part of a Series: Reflections from Medical School
The evening sun spilled through the leaves of the oak tree, illuminating the parking lot of the church with dancing shadows. The shade provided some refuge from the summer warmth. This exquisite lighting framed our arrival as if it were a movie. My brother and I walked past a lineup of cars, waiting to check in for their appointment at the free clinic. In front of us walked another volunteer who had arrived only a minute before us.
Amidst the line was a small, blue Mercedes SUV with the windows open. Probably a GLC 300. A family sat inside, waiting quietly for a clipboard-brandishing volunteer to help check them in. Instead, the volunteer walking in front of us, who had not even entered the clinic yet, literally stopped in her tracks, mouth agape. She waved her arm furiously, clear disappointment coursed through her voice. “A Mercedes at a free clinic!?”
As we entered the building, waiting for our temperature to be checked, she repeated the sentiment to me. Incredulous, I initially thought she was joking. I was shocked that a volunteer at a free clinic would so openly and vehemently say something like this. Quickly it became apparent that she genuinely thought that any person in a Mercedes shouldn’t be coming to a free clinic. I didn’t want to argue, but I did tell her that I strongly disagree with that. Perhaps the patient lost their job and no longer has health insurance (a common issue, unfortunately)? Perhaps they are bringing an elder who is visiting from a foreign country?
I thought back to an article in the Washington Post which was strikingly similar, describing the experience of getting food stamps in a Mercedes. Either way, however, it is completely inappropriate to say something like this at a free clinic, much less within earshot of the patient.
We bought a house. Then, just three weeks after we closed, the market crashed. The house we’d paid $240,000 for was suddenly worth $150,000. It was okay, though — we were still making enough money to cover the exorbitant mortgage payments. Then we weren’t.
Two weeks before my children were born, my future husband found himself staring at a pink slip. The days of unemployment turned into weeks, months, and, eventually, years.
Then my kids were born, six weeks early. They were just three pounds each at birth, barely the length of my shoe. We fed them through a little tube we attached to our pinky fingers because their mouths weren’t strong enough to suckle. We spent 10 days in the hospital waiting for them to increase in size. They never did. Try as I might, I couldn’t get my babies to put on weight. With their lives at risk, I switched from breast milk to formula, at about $15 a can. We went through dozens a week.
In just two months, we’d gone from making a combined $120,000 a year to making just $25,000 and leeching out funds to a mortgage we couldn’t afford. Our savings dwindled, then disappeared.Darlene Cunha
I was utterly shocked that someone could judge someone and have that much prejudice against a Mercedes when they’re volunteering in a free clinic.
“Sell the Mercedes,” a friend said to me. “He doesn’t get to keep his toys now.”
But it wasn’t a toy — it was paid off. My husband bought that car in full long before we met. Were we supposed to trade it in for a crappier car we’d have to make payments on? Only to have that less reliable car break down on us?
And even if we had wanted to do that, here’s what people don’t understand: The reality of poverty can spring quickly while the psychological effects take longer to surface. When you lose a job, your first thought isn’t, “Oh my God, I’m poor. I’d better sell all my nice stuff!” It’s “I need another job. Now.” When you’re scrambling, you hang on to the things that work, that bring you some comfort. That Mercedes was the one reliable, trustworthy thing in our lives.
That’s how I found myself, one dreary day when my Honda wouldn’t start, in my husband’s Mercedes at the WIC office. I parked gingerly over one of the many potholes, shut off the purring engine and locked it, then walked briskly to the door — head held high and not looking in either direction.
To this day, it is the single most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done.Darlene Cunha
It’s already difficult enough to bring yourself to come to a free clinic. Patient’s judge themselves harshly, thinking that this is not a resource that they should need. As a result, it’s critical that we make the environment a safe space for patients so that everyone can feel welcomed.
“This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps,” by Darlena Cunha, July 8, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/07/08/this-is-what-happened-when-i-drove-my-mercedes-to-pick-up-food-stamps/