Education Homelessness Medicine Nonfiction Policy Systems

People Get Better.

“What?!” he exclaimed. “Are you serious?”

“Yeah,” I replied, puzzled.

“That’s… amazing.”

“Yeah, it is.” I paused, finally realizing that he had never heard me talk about this before. “It actually happens a lot. People get better. People get better all the time.”

When I first met him, he screamed at me, his face red, spittle flying from his lips. He refused to believe I was a physician.

“Women can’t be doctors! They can’t!”

He did believe, though, that televisions could control his thoughts.

“They know what I think! When they start talking, they control what I think and what I say and what I do!”

He drew a swastika that covered the entire wall of his jail cell.

“Yes, I believe in white supremacy! But I’m not part of a group!”

He accepted medications on his own. First, the yelling stopped. Then, the swastika disappeared. Drawings of cute farm animals took its place. Within a few weeks, he greeted me with a smile.

“Hi, Dr. Yang. How are you doing today? I hope you’re well.”

He invited me to sit at the small table next to the kitchenette in his apartment.

“You want anything to drink?”

“No, thank you. How are you doing?”

“I’m okay. What do you know about the Mediterranean diet? I want to try that. I want to lose some of this weight.”

After discussing the merits of vegetables and lean proteins as they related to heart health, he leaned back in his chair. He then blurted, “It’s been six months since I smoked a cigarette.”

He never smiled when he shared his accomplishments. His condition prevented him from doing so. I smiled for him.

He resumed musing about dietary changes. I mused about how far he had come: Just 18 months ago he was living on the streets, often snarling at strangers and the voices that only he heard. He came to the attention of the police when he chased a young mother pushing her baby in a stroller. He threatened to beat them with the metal pipe in his hand. The police thankfully sent him to the hospital for care.

“Thanks for seeing me,” he said as he walked me to the door. The voices hadn’t completed disappeared, but he could ignore them now. “I like steak and potatoes, but I’ll try the leafy vegetables.”

He used both hands to smear his own feces on his arms, chest, and belly. He applied toothpaste to his elbows and his knees. I asked him why.

“because it’s protection it’s protection against all of you I shouldn’t be here I’m fine I’m not sick you don’t understand who I am they all know who I am you would be scared too if you knew who I am people know me from way back—”

He began howling at the door.

Within days of him receiving medications, all of that stopped. His jail cell was clean. He took showers. He never spoke of what happened. Neither did I.

I was taking a walk a few months later when I heard someone call, “Hey, Dr. Yang!”

I turned around and saw a group of men in uniform working. This man, suited up like his colleagues, waved at me and smiled.

I couldn’t help but smile—this is fanstastic!—but felt a twinge of embarrassment. Did he know that he had called me “doctor”? What would his coworkers think?

First do no harm. I waved back.

“Nice to see you, Doc,” he continued. “I’m doing good.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Take care of yourself.”

“I will, Doc. Thanks.”

People get better. The science hasn’t yet generated interventions that guarantee that everyone will get better. Furthermore, some people who could get better can’t access care due to barriers related to finances, policy, and other systemic factors.

Until then, we must share both stories and data (try this, this, and this) that people get better. It is amazing, but it shouldn’t be surprising.