The young man was one of several clients scheduled to see HealthPoint nurse Kim Hess during her regular visit to the Friends of Youth center for young people who are homeless. So, when a patient she knew well mentioned that his friend had the next appointment, Kim says, “I thought, ‘OK. Cool.’”
“So, his friend came in and he was obviously ill,” Kim says. “You know: fever, body aches.”
Kim’s thoughts immediately turned to a question that’s common now: Is this COVID-19? Her next thoughts, though, were less expected. The young man had recently spent two nights in the 20-space emergency shelter. He was close to her patient and others at Friends of Youth. How would she convince him to undergo testing for the virus that causes COVID-19 and, if necessary, seek treatment that might include isolation and quarantine? More than that, how would she help with testing for his friends, some of whom have mental illnesses that make them wary of authority, including the medical community?
Who do you trust?
In five years of twice-weekly visits to Friends of Youth in Redmond, Kim has come to know many of the program’s guests, and they’ve come to know her. A community health nurse with HealthPoint’s Homeless Programs, she’s the one passing out gummy vitamins every Tuesday morning at 7. On Thursdays, she’s at the drop-in center, ready to see anyone who wants to take care of their health.
COVID-19 has changed Kim’s practice. The need for social distancing and careful hygiene has ended casual drop-ins at the five homeless shelters she regularly visits. It’s also heightened barriers that put her clients at increased risk for illness. Options for sheltering alone are limited. Public spaces, including restrooms, are closed. And mental health issues, always a challenge, can worsen with stress.
A calming presence
That’s what concerned Kim most as she waited for a “strike team” from Public Health—Seattle & King County at Friends of Youth. The young man she’d seen earlier tested positive for the coronavirus and was hospitalized. Now his friends, the center’s staff, and Kim herself needed testing. Already some of Kim’s clients were pulling away, fearful of what testing might mean.
“We have several youth who suffer from significant mental health illnesses,” Kim says. “Because we had a previously established, trusting relationship I was able to stand six feet away and get them to focus on my face, take some slow deep breaths—just kind of give them emotional coaching through the testing procedure.”
Eventually all clients and staff got their tests. When results came back, all were negative.
The importance of showing up
For Katherine Gudgel, Manager of Community and Social Services at HealthPoint, Kim’s work shows “how important it is to have people working with these populations on an ongoing basis so they have a connection with health care.”
“This wasn’t just some stranger asking them to get this scary test for this scary disease,” she says. “This was Kim, someone they know and trust.”
Kim calls it “the importance of showing up.” It’s at the heart of her work.
“It’s saying, ‘Work with me. Trust me, and I will help get your needs addressed. That’s really what we do.”