“I have a new one for you, but I'm afraid it's in the projects." Pat shuffles through papers on her desk. She hands me the intake sheet.
When I accepted the position as a home health physical therapist, I knew I might have to visit patients in seedier sections of town. I'd been in a few economically challenged neighborhoods, but I'd not been in Tampa's public housing developments.
"Here are some things you can do to stay safe," Pat says, peering at me over wire-rimmed glasses. "Travel between the hours of 10 and 2. Get very specific directions. Leave nothing valuable visible in your car. Use your car alarm." She pauses, searches out my eyes. "If you feel threatened, terminate the visit, try another time. Your safety comes first."
The smell of fresh coffee and bright fluorescent lighting does little to control my rising apprehension. I stare at the intake sheet. I'm imagining hoods and drug dealers on street corners waiting to pounce on easy prey. I'd be easy prey.
I wish I was some brave crusader, adept at martial arts, ready to tackle any situation for my patient's welfare. Instead, I am a 5-foot-3 female with a fair number of phobias. I don't like small spaces, heights, roller coasters, thunderstorms or traveling in bad neighborhoods.
Afraid or not, I was going to have to make this visit. It was my job. I became a physical therapist because I wanted to help people. I remind myself God will protect me. I'm no Mother Teresa, but I wonder if she ever got scared.
Mustering up what little courage I possess, I set out the next morning in my Ford Taurus with the usual supplies, latex gloves, hand wipes and CPR mask. I mutter a prayer for safety as I head away from the comfortable surroundings of suburbia, watching the neighborhoods change.
I enter the gate off 22nd Street. Signs warn of razor tracking. If I cross in the wrong direction my tires will be slashed. I can't imagine why razor tracks are necessary. I picture myself stranded with flattened tires.
Rows of two-story duplexes line up like army barracks. The asphalt is broken. Dried-up weeds fill cracks. Worn-out cars dot the parking lot. No one in sight. Having imagined the area swarming with violent criminals, I'm relieved.
I follow the road back to the third set of buildings and find the number I'm looking for. I park my car directly in front, gauging the distance to the client's front door. I venture out, chirp my alarm, dash to the door. I knock with three loud blows. Don't want to waste time in this vulnerable position. I'm not sure what to expect. I'd been in roach-infested apartments before. I'm also a clean freak.
A woman wearing a patterned apron, hair neatly tucked in a bun, answers the door. She gestures for me to enter. The aroma of something delicious permeates the air. I spy a kitchen table and two chairs. There, a younger woman tends to her cooing baby. He doesn't seem to be bothered that he's in the projects. I look around. Immaculately clean.
A handsome young man in his late teens joins the woman. I introduce myself and explain the purpose of my visit.
"He's upstairs, this way," the young man says. We proceed up bare concrete stairs to the second floor. My eyes scan the stairs. No roaches. On the second floor, we enter a bedroom.
"This is my father."
Propped in bed, a middle-aged man wears a halo brace. Despite its name, this is no angelic attire. A series of titanium rods immobilize the skull and upper spine while the spinal column heals. On the table beside the gentleman's bed, I notice a Bible and book by Max Lucado, the minister and bestselling author. I introduce myself again. He gestures to a chair beside the bed.
He has a warm smile. "I'm so glad to meet you. Thank you for coming," he says.
"Tell me about what happened," I ask.
"I was working in construction. I had pain in my neck and arms and couldn't sleep. My wife made me go to a clinic. They gave me pills. I don't like to take pills." As he talks he gestures wildly with his hands since he is unable to move his head. "Eventually my legs began to feel funny and I started falling down. I couldn't work. I went back to the clinic. The doctor sent me to a neurologist and he told me I needed to have surgery right away. I couldn't move my legs, but now after the surgery, look," he says, lifting his legs with pride.
"Can you walk?" I ask.
"I can walk a little. After the surgery, my son had to help me up the stairs and I've been here ever since. We've applied for a single-story apartment, but there's a waiting list."
A knock at the door interrupts our conversation. The young man enters carrying a silver tray. On it, two frosty glasses of lemonade with ice, folded napkins and a plate of cookies beckon.
"Please, for you," the man says as he gestures to the drinks and cookies.
Even in the wealthiest homes in Tampa, I'd never been offered refreshments in this manner. I was there to serve, not to be served. For a few seconds, I struggle with these thoughts. An awkward pause ensues. My patient waits for me to partake of his offering. I take a napkin and cookie, place it on my lap. I take a sip of lemonade.
The man smiles, takes the other glass. We complete the interview and I show him some strengthening exercises for his legs. We practice walking around the top floor with a wheeled walker. As we walk he calls downstairs to his wife, who waves up at us. I arrange for a followup visit. The family thanks me and offers friendly goodbyes.
The door shuts. I make it back to my car, unscathed, and heave a sigh of relief. Not what I expected. I offer a prayer of thanks and drive off, leaving fear and prejudice behind.
Ruth Jones lives in Tampa.