As Doug and I reached Park Avenue and Broadway, the Jesus Saves sign was in view. We were one block away from the Lawrence Street Rescue Mission, where Doug could finally get warm.
“Oh NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!” he wailed. “It’s happening!” His shivering flared into convulsions as he leaned into a wall and I helped him slide to the ground. The seizure he had warned me about was upon him, just short of Jesus Saves.
I had known Doug for about 30 minutes. I was on my daily walk for sanity in the Uptown neighborhood when I came upon him at 22nd Avenue and Emerson Street. He was dressed in shorts on a sleety 30-degree day and looked wobbly.
“I’m really confused. I have seizures,” he told me and showed a nasty scrape and bruise around his right eye. “They released me from the hospital. I told them they shouldn’t,” he said, pulling out discharge papers that showed his release that morning from Denver Health. He had walked miles in this weather to this spot outside an historic church that has been converted to townhouses.
“I know the shelter has to be somewhere near here. It’s on 22nd.”
A common mistake in this part of town, where numbered “Streets” crisscross with numbered “Avenues.” In truth, he was about a mile away and there was no straight path to point him toward.
I called the Denver Rescue Mission and learned they don’t provide transportation to their shelter.
In the age of social distancing, what do you do?
I briefly thought about calling an Uber for him but decided it would be very privileged of me to palm this health bomb onto another human – one whose job is risky enough.
“I’ll walk with you,” I said, thinking I could do my Boy Scout thing for a couple of blocks, get him on Park Avenue and point him in the right direction.
“You’re a good man,” he said, for the first of many times. “This is embarrassing,” he said, also the first of many times.
I waved off these sentiments with some version of, “shit happens, man. Don’t worry about it.”
On our walk, I learned his name is Doug, that he is from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that all his belongings were lost or stolen at the shelter, and that seizures are top-of-mind. He would pause before crossing each street: Sometimes to question whether we were headed in the right direction, and other times to take stock of his ability to make it to the other side.
The sleet was turning to snow. His shivering was more pronounced and his mentions of seizures more frequent and alarming. I was getting worried for Doug, and clearly the human thing to do was walk with him all the way to the doors of the Rescue Mission.
“We gotta get you to the shelter, Doug, and get you warm,” I said.
“You don’t understand,” he replied.
In the final blocks, the sidewalks became busier, people making their way to the lunch lines in this miserable weather. From a car, you see this part of town as a freeze frame. But within its flow, it’s a moving picture.
My daily walk for sanity was giving me a heaping helping of reality.
“There’s the Jesus Saves sign, Doug!” I told him.
“You don’t understand,” he said again.
We passed an abandoned cart, piled high with blankets, pillows, tarps and an orange traffic cone. Others walked by it, carrying their stuff in shopping bags. I had dropped from my social perch into another whose tiers were traced by the amount of life’s necessities one could push or carry; by whether one was upright or down, literally, in the gutter.
“You better call an ambulance,” Doug said, just before the seizure hit in force.
“Is he coughing or showing any signs of fever or severe illness?” the dispatcher asked at the start of our 10-minute, layperson-to-layperson diagnosis and treatment of Doug on the sidewalk. “Help is on the way,” he said.
Over the next 15 minutes, Doug endured four or five waves of seizures. In between, he would mutter, “this is embarrassing.” I imagined myself in his place and began to truly feel for him.
I knelt by him and stroked his shoulder. “You’re OK, Doug.” Passersby would overhear and shout encouragement: “Hang in there, Doug.” How often does this drama play out here? How many people live and provide support here, every day? In a time of coronavirus, I’m getting just a glimpse.
As the paramedics strapped his bare legs and shivering arms onto the gurney, Doug looked at me. “That’s my friend,” he said.
“We almost made it, Doug,” I said.
“It was worth the try,” the paramedic told me.
Steve Krizman is an assistant professor of journalism and public relations at Metropolitan State University of Denver.